There are just two men in the world now who can prevent a new U.S.-led war in Iraq, and CBS News Anchor Dan Rather sat down with one of them: the president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein.
In his first interview with an American journalist in a decade, Hussein talked for more than three hours about the looming war and his efforts to head it off. Saddam indicated he will not destroy -- as ordered by the U.N. -- his arsenal of controversial al Samoud missiles. Saddam also challenged President Bush to a televised debate about their differences.
CBS News Chief White House Correspondent John Roberts asked Rather some questions about his historic interview.
Roberts: The fact that he was willing to sit down with you, did that give you a sense that Saddam Hussein really believes it's down to crunch time now?
Rather: Yes, I think he knows that. In fact, he indicated very clearly. He's a tall man. He's about 6'2", 6'2 1/2". He walked a little stiffly. I think that may be because of these reports he had a bad back, but he was very calm -- at least outwardly -- unhurried, as evidenced by the amount of time he spent with us. I think in direct answer to your question, he knows that the time for the invasion is very near.
He takes seriously what President Bush has been saying and he made it clear in the interview that he's prepared as he can get. He thinks the Iraqi people are prepared as they can get and he basically laid out a situation where he thinks that Iraq will have to absorb a tremendous first and maybe second punch from the United States and its allies. But he left no doubt that he believes that Iraq can and will absorb that punch and, if the Americans and their allies come, that they in the end will be defeated. It's his view, John, by the way, and he repeated it in the interview, that he did not lose the Gulf War in 1990- 91.
Roberts: Is that an indication, Dan, that Saddam does believe that war is inevitable.
Rather: He didn't use the word "inevitable." But by both word and deed in the interview it's very clear that he does expect war. He's hoping somehow, some way that it doesn't happen. But he certainly expects it. I think it's fair to say he expects it very soon unless something dramatic changes. He didn't indicate any dramatic changes will be coming from his end which means if there will be any dramatic changes they'll have to come from what he'd call the other side.
Roberts: He has to be aware of the American plan to come in there and to either kill or capture him as swiftly as possible. Is he willing to pay that price -- or you mentioned the word "exile" a couple of minutes ago, is there any indication that he is willing to even consider that?
Rather: I will say that he strongly indicated that both he and the Iraqi people will be here when the Americans and their allies come, if indeed they come.
Roberts: What about this order, Dan, from the United Nations to destroy the al-Samoud missiles where the inspection regime says are proscribed missiles. Does Saddam see this as a make-or-break issue, or does he say, "these are only going 25 miles further than allowed to go, that's not a very big to hang your hat on if you want to go to war"?
Rather: He was very clear about that. He says that all the missiles he has, including the advanced al-Samoud missiles, are within the guidelines of the United Nations. He doesn't indicate that they go 25 miles farther than they're supposed to go. It's his contention -- and he's sticking with it -- that he's not going to destroy those missiles, not even going to promise to destroy them because they are within the U.N. guidelines.
The three-hour interview with Rather was Saddam's first with an American journalist in a decade. Portions of the interview will air Tuesday on The Early Show and the CBS Evening News, and on a special edition of 60 Minutes II on Wednesday night at 9 pm EST, 8 pm CT.
The interview covered a lot of ground: what Saddam thinks about the American public, about Osama bin Laden, the Iraqi people, the dangers empires have historically faced in the Mideast – and whether or not he is prepared to die fighting or would leave his country.
Note: The interview was taped by Iraqi TV crews, as is standard practice for Hussein, and the Iraqis delivered a tape that combined all three cameras into one composite feed. However, as far as we can determine, the content of the interview is intact. The Iraqis assured us beforehand that there would be no censorship whatsoever of the interview, which ran for almost three hours, and they have apparently lived up to that assurance. We will continue to check the transcript against our own notes, and if that changes, we will of course let you know.