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QUEST FOR SECURITY

Americans Get a New Look at Hussein

In his first extended interview in years, the Iraqi leader appeals for peace. U.S. officials denounce his remarks as propaganda.

February 27, 2003|Bob Drogin | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Americans on Wednesday night got their first extended look in years at Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who appealed for peace as the United States continued to prepare for a war to oust him.

In a rambling interview with Dan Rather of CBS News, Hussein showed little of the menace that marked his appearances before the Persian Gulf War in 1991, when he vowed to wage the "mother of all battles." He wore a dark suit with a striped tie rather than the military uniform and black beret he often dons.

Though he wore civilian garb, Hussein appeared resigned to war. The Iraqi dictator was firm in rejecting exile to prevent a U.S.-led invasion, a plan floated by some Arab leaders and endorsed by the White House. "I was born here in Iraq.... We will die here. We will die in this country and we will maintain our honor -- the honor that is required -- in front of our people."

The highlights of Hussein's comments have been made public in recent days. He again denied Bush administration claims that Baghdad is engaged in a clandestine effort to develop and produce poison gases, germ agents and nuclear weapons in defiance of repeated United Nations resolutions.

Hussein insisted that his government has fully cooperated with U.N. inspection teams that have searched hundreds of Iraqi sites since November. It is the Bush administration, he said, that is pushing "the huge lie ... against Iraq about chemical, biological and nuclear weapons."

It wasn't the statements that made news, but just that Hussein had granted the interview and that Americans were able to see the man who has been an object of derision for more than a decade. He has been portrayed by the Bush administration as an incarnation of evil willing to kill his own people with poison gases, and whose regime, with its alleged weapons of mass destruction, threatens peace efforts across the Middle East.

But as he sat in a white chair edged in gilt, Hussein appeared calm and solemn, polite and solicitous. His message, over and over, was that both he and Iraq are innocent victims of U.S. aggression.

U.S. officials fiercely denied that portrayal, and they denounced Hussein's apparent charm offensive as self-serving propaganda, not a serious proposal to advance peace. Earlier, the interview sparked an unusual exchange between the White House and CBS over who was using whom.

Hussein, who controls the state-run media in Iraq, presumably hopes that the interview will help influence international opinion. Antiwar sentiment appears to be growing, especially outside the United States, and the U.S. and Britain are fighting in the U.N. Security Council for a resolution to tacitly authorize the use of force against Iraq.

"The conventional view is that Saddam is afraid, so he's using the interview to reach out for support," said Steven Black, who spent seven years as a U.N. weapons inspector in the 1990s and who has studied Hussein. "But I think it's the opposite. He thinks he's winning right now."

Black said Hussein, who has not traveled outside Iraq in more than a decade, has seen little to convince him that his days really may be numbered. Hussein, after all, believes he was not defeated in the 1991 Gulf War.

"Think about the information coming at him now," Black said. "Mass international demonstrations against a war. People calling for more time for inspections. He's faced down U.S. administrations in the past. He's seen military buildups in the past. He has no data point in favor of him making real concessions. He has every reason to think he's going to tough this out and someone will find a soft solution that will leave him in power."

In the interview, which took place over three hours Monday in a Baghdad palace, Hussein repeatedly denied that Iraq has missiles able to fly more than 93 miles, as chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix concluded last week. Hussein thus appeared to defy Blix's demand that Iraq begin to destroy a newly built fleet of 100 or so Al-Samoud 2 missiles by Saturday.

"There are no missiles that are contrary to the prescription of the United Nations in Iraq," he said.

A clear Iraqi refusal to destroy the missiles would provide political ammunition for those who support White House claims that only military force will pry Hussein's grip from his weapons of mass destruction.

The CBS interview provided a rare unscripted view of Hussein, who last met U.S. journalists, including Rather, 13 years ago. Hussein's last known meeting with an American was in 1995, when then-Rep. Bill Richardson, now governor of New Mexico, visited the Iraqi leader to win the release of two imprisoned Americans. Hussein gave a brief interview several weeks ago to a sympathetic British politician.

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