Byline: RICHARD WALLACE US Editor in Washington
PRESIDENT Bush is giving Saddam Hussein and his key henchmen 48 hours to quit Iraq or face all-out war.
Mr Bush was due to deliver the ultimatum in a nationwide TV address at 1am this morning after the US and Britain scrapped attempts to secure a second UN resolution authorising war having failed to win over the Security Council.
Facing a devastating blitz of 3,000 bombs in the first two days of conflict, defiant Saddam rejected the president's marching orders.
Sixty UN weapons inspectors scrambled to quit Iraq, humanitarian workers were advised to flee Baghdad and Britons were ordered to evacuate Kuwait and Israel.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell said: "This matter cannot continue indefinitely. The time for diplomacy has passed. Saddam's had many chances over the last 12 years and he's blown every one."
A senior Pentagon official added: "It was five minutes to midnight last week. Now it is five seconds to midnight. The clock has run down."
Speaking in the Commons last night, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw appealed to MPs to support Tony Blair today when he asks them to authorise British military action.
He was heckled by anti-war Labour MPs. Earlier, Cabinet Minister Robin Cook quit the Government in protest at the forthcoming conflict. Yesterday had been described by Mr Bush at his Azores summit with Mr Blair as a "moment of truth for the world" - the day the UN must demand Iraq's "total" disarmament.
But France, Russia and Germany stood firm in their opposition to war and called instead for a Security Council meeting today to determine a 30-day deadline for weapons inspectors to wrap up their work.
After it became clear that the US and Britain would fail to win a majority on the 15-member Council for a second resolution the two allies refused further discussion.
Their decision on this grimly historic day called into question the legality and ethics of an apparently unstoppable war, and the continued relevance of a hopelessly divided UN. It fell to Britain's UN ambassador, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, to announce that the second resolution proposal would not be put to the vote.
Peering from behind his glasses the former Eton schoolmaster, who is retiring from the diplomatic service, called for quiet before issuing his dramatic statement.
He proceeded publicly to rebuke France - without specifically naming the country - for its insistence on vetoing any ultimatum on Iraq "no matter what the circumstances".
He added that French suggestions to ease the crisis would amount to "no ultimatum, no pressure and no disarmament".
US ambassador John Negroponte, sporting a green tie to mark St Patrick's Day, backed his ally and said a second resolution vote would have been "close". But French ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere said in past hours the "majority of the council confirmed they do not want a use of force".
Earlier, Mr Bush and Mr Blair both phoned French leader Jacques Chirac and Russian president Vladimir Putin to gain their support.
However, French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin, said: "France cannot accept a resolution that sets an ultimatum and envisages an automatic use of force."
Mr Putin said: "We are for solving the problem exclusively by peaceful means. …