In an exclusive interview with CBS News Anchor Dan Rather, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein insists the American people are not his enemy and urges dialogue, including a debate with President Bush, to avoid war.
Saddam also denies his Al Samoud 2 missiles are in violation of U.N. mandates and indicates he will not destroy them, as chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix has demanded.
The wide-ranging three-hour interview, Saddam's first with an American journalist in a decade, covered the Iraqi leader's feelings on his own people, the American public, Osama bin Laden, and what his own fate might be. He spoke at length on the key issue of the Al Samoud 2 missiles.
Additional excerpts of the interview will air Wednesday on The Early Show and on a special edition of 60 Minutes II on Wednesday night at 9 pm ET, 8 pm CT.
Rather: Mr. President, do you intend to destroy the Al Samoud missiles that the United Nations prohibits? Will you destroy those missiles?
Saddam: Our commitment is to abide, to comply with the resolution and to apply it as per the will of the United Nations and on that basis we have acted and we shall act.
As you know, Iraq is allowed to manufacture land-to-land rockets as per the resolution of the United Nations.
Rather: I want to make sure you understand, Mr. President. You do not intend to destroy these missiles?
Saddam: Which missiles? What do you mean? We have no missiles outside the specifications of the United Nations and the inspection teams are here and they're looking. I believe the United States knows and the world knows that Iraq has none of what has been said at the higher political levels.
And I believe all the turmoil that's going on and all these fleets and these concentrations of troops, all this is to cover the big lie that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction such as biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. So, the missiles you are talking about, the missiles that are against the resolution of the United Nations, these do not exist and they have been destroyed.
Rather: What is the most important thing you want the American people to understand at this important juncture of history?
Saddam: First, that you tell them that Iraqi people are not the enemy of the American people. If the American people want to know more through dialogue through television screens, I am ready to dialogue with Bush, with Mr. Bush, the president of the United States, and to appear together before the television. And I would say what I have to say, what I have to say about the American policy and he can say things about the Iraqi policy and let that be on television in a just and fair way.
Rather: Are you speaking of a debate? Yes, a debate. This is new. You are saying that you are willing, you are suggesting, you are urging a debate with President Bush on television?
Saddam: Yes, that's it. We are not asking for a contest with weapons. All I'm asking is to appear before the American people and other people in a direct discussion in a conversation between me and Mr. Bush that's broadcast by television.
This is an opportunity for him, if he is really convinced about his position, about preparations for war, or any other means, to convince the whole world about the reasons that justifies war. And it's opportunity for us to tell the world about our reasons to want to live in peace.
Rather: This is not a joke?
Saddam: Not at all. I'm not joking. This is because of my respect for the American public opinion. Conducting a dialogue could bring peace. Why not go and have a debate?
The White House flatly rules out any kind of debate with Saddam Hussein. As for the Al Samoud 2 missiles, chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix insists that Iraq has them and must destroy them.
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.