Saddam Speaks: Part II - A Debate?

Saddam Speaks

Rather's interview with Saddam took place on February 24, in Baghdad. Rather had been told the chances of speaking with Saddam were good, and that they would be picked up at their hotel when the time was right -- which was exactly how it happened. Producer Jim Murphy and Rather were put in a car with curtained widows and two Iraqis in the front seat. They drove for 45 minutes, first one direction then another. They were dropped in a house, picked up by another car, put in a third car, driven around the city east, west, north and south again before they reached their final destination: the Republican Palace.

Rather recognized the palace from just last month. He was reporting from here when the U.N. inspectors made a surprise visit. But you can't see much from the outside the gates. And for security, you're not allowed to take pictures.

The only way to see it is from space. Baghdad as seen from a satellite is a huge city, bigger than Los Angeles. Tucked hard along the Tigris River is the Republican Palace, apparently one of Saddam's favorites, built by the British just after World War I when whey they took over what is now Iraq from the Turks.

Rather and his crew were driven through the main gates through several check points and with armed guards all around. They were taken into the palace, a place heavily bombed during the first Gulf War, now meticulously restored. Three hours after they left our hotel, just a few miles away, they were greeted by Saddam. To Rather, he seemed thinner than when Rather had seen him 12 years ago. He seemed healthy though stiff, apparently from back problems. And in our interview, he made a proposal directly to President Bush, asking for a sort of TV duel.

Rather: What's the most important thing you want the American people to understand, at this important juncture of history?

Saddam Hussein: First, convey to them that the people of Iraq are not the enemy of the American people. If the American people would like to know the facts as they are, through a direct dialogue, then I am ready to conduct a debate with the President of the United States, President Bush, on television. I will say whatever I have to say about American policy. He will have the opportunity to say whatever he has to say about the policy of Iraq. And this will be in front of the world, on television, in a direct uncensored, honest manner. In front of, as I said, everyone. And then they will judge what is true and what is false.

Rather: This - this is new. You - you are suggesting, you are saying, that you are willing, you are suggesting, you're urging a debate with President Bush? On television?

Saddam Hussein: Yes. That is my proposal. On films we see that the Americans are courageous. When challenged to a duel they will not back down. Just as the Arabs would not.

This will be an opportunity for him to convince the world, if he is committed to war. If he's convinced of his own position, this will be an opportunity for him to convince the world that he is right in making such a decision. It could also be an opportunity for us - to-- tell the world our own side of the story. And why we want to live in peace, and security.

I believe that it is the right of the American people, the Iraqi people and the world that we show our evidence clearly so that they can see for themselves. So, why should we hide from the people? Why shouldn't we show them both perspectives? We as Presidents -- President of the United States, and President of Iraq. This is what I am calling for. We will either make peace, and this is what we hope for -- and spare our people harm, or whoever decides anything other than peace, will have to convince his own people with the facts. This is the -- the gist of my proposal, my idea.

Rather: This is not a joke?

Saddam Hussein: No, no. I call for this because war itself is not a joke

Rather: Mr. President, where would this debate take place, that you imagine?

Saddam Hussein: The American President in America and Saddam Hussein, the President of Iraq in Iraq. And then the debate can be conducted through satellite.

Rather: Oh. So, a satellite television debate.

Saddam Hussein: Yes. And if Mr. Bush has another proposal, then we are prepared to listen, what is important is the idea.

Rather: Would you be prepared to come to the United Nations for this debate?

Saddam Hussein: The most important thing is that our debate be heard in a normal and accurate way. And by this I do not mean that I go and I make a speech at the United Nations and then that Mr. Bush will make his speech at the United Nations.

That is not what I mean. What I mean is that we sit-- as we are sitting, you and I, now - I will address questions to him and he will address questions to me.

He will explain why he wants to go to war - I will explain why we are insistent on peace and we want to maintain peace. And we defend our honor and our sovereignty and our rights. So that the American people, the Iraqi people and the other peoples of the world will hear us. Without tricks. Without editing. Without prepared speeches. People want to hear live and direct dialogue.

Rather: Well, this surprises me. I want to make sure I understand.

Saddam Hussein: The debate should be broadcast on American and Iraqi television in its entirety.

Saddam Hussein: And it should be broadcast live.

Rather: A live international debate via satellite.

Saddam Hussein: Yes, of course.

Rather: How would this work? Who would moderate this debate?

Saddam Hussein: Yes, you Mr. Rather.

Rather: With respect, Mr. President, I have other problems. I've got enough problems already.

Narration: As soon as the White House heard of Saddam's proposal for a debate, they immediately rejected it. A spokesman called it "not serious."

During their interview, everything Saddam told Rather was being relayed with the help of his two translators sitting at the same table. It turns out that Saddam was not just speaking, but also listening carefully to what they were saying. At one point, after Saddam mentioned President Bush Senior, one of his translators called him 'Bush' instead of 'Mr. Bush.' Saddam interrupted him in mid-sentence:

Translator for Saddam Hussein: And how Bush, the father, came out on a...

Saddam Hussein: I didn't say Bush. I said Mister Bush. I am being historically accurate and showing him respect.

Rather: I understand his point when he calls him called Mr. Bush.

Saddam Hussein: I used not to (and this is a funny anecdote) address him as Mr. Bush when he was in power. But as soon as he left office, I referred to him as Mr. Bush. We believe that we should respect the humanity even of our enemy. That's why I refer to him as Mr. Bush.

Rather: I understand now.

Rather: Mr. President, I hope you will take this question in the spirit in which it's asked. First of all, I regret that I do not speak Arabic. Do you speak any-- any English at all?

Saddam Hussein: (In Arabic…) Have some coffee

Translator for Saddam Hussein: Americans like coffee….

Rather: That's true and this American likes coffee.

Saddam Hussein: I am sorry, I do not speak English - fluently. But I can understand to some extent.

Rather: Well, would you speak some English for me? Anything you choose?

Saddam Hussein: Our language is Arabic.

Go On To Part III Of The Story.

  • David Kohn

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