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Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 18, 2003

The Associated Press

Iraq's leadership on Tuesday rejected the U.S. ultimatum that Saddam Hussein and his sons leave Iraq or face war, and the United Nations pulled its weapons inspection staff out of the country as battle appeared inevitable.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa called off a possible last-minute peacemaking trip to Iraq on Tuesday, in what appeared to signal the end of Arab efforts to avert a war. China's new leaders pressed ahead with efforts to avoid military conflict, insisting that U.N. weapons inspections must continue despite the ultimatum.

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In a televised address Monday night, President Bush gave Saddam and his sons 48 hours to get out of the country. The deadline is Wednesday at 8 p.m. EST. A U.S.-led force of more than 250,000 troops is stationed in the region, ready to attack.

"All the decades of deceit and cruelty have now reached an end," Bush said after abandoning -- in the face of opposition from France, Russia and Germany -- an effort to win U.N. backing for the use of force.

After the speech, the Homeland Security Department raised the U.S. terror alert to orange, the second-highest level, indicating a high risk of terrorist reprisals, and steps were taken to tighten security at airports, nuclear power plants, bridges and other key installations.

Iraq's al-Shabab television, owned by Saddam's son Odai, said the decision to defy the ultimatum was made in a joint meeting of the Revolution Command Council and the leadership of the ruling Baath party. Saddam chaired the session.

"Iraq doesn't choose its path through foreigners and doesn't choose its leaders by decree from Washington, London or Tel Aviv," said a statement read by the announcer.

U.N. weapons inspectors flew out of Iraq on Tuesday, the latest in a steady stream of foreigners to abandon Iraq in recent days. In Baghdad, residents stocked up on food, lined up for gas and taped their windows for fear of flying glass from U.S. bombs.

American military officers in the Kuwaiti desert issued troops ammunition and showed them photographs of Iraqi soldiers so they could differentiate the different units and ranks.

In Washington, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said Bush had failed "miserably" at diplomacy, leaving war inevitable. And in England, a second government minister quit on Tuesday in a growing revolt in the governing Labor Party over Prime Minister Tony Blair's backing for the use of force in Iraq.

But in Australia, Prime Minister John Howard said he would commit 2,000 military personnel to join in a war against Iraq. Poland pledged to send up to 200 soldiers. And Turkish leaders said they would press to allow forces to use their territory as a staging area against Iraq.

U.S. soldiers around the world said Bush's speech was right on target.

Saddam "better be packing his bags," said Sgt. 1st Class Eric Alfred of Twin Mountain, N.H., as he stood in the Kuwaiti desert.

The White House is expected to ask Congress as early as Friday for up to $90 billion to pay for the war and other expenses, U.S. officials said. The bill would include aid for Israel, a key U.S. ally in the region, and money for anti-terrorism efforts at home, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.