BAGHDAD, Iraq – Saddam Hussein indicated on Monday that he does not intend to follow U.N. orders to destroy his Al-Samoud 2 missiles, and challenged President Bush to an internationally televised debate via satellite linkup.
In a three-hour interview with CBS anchor Dan Rather, the Iraqi leader said he envisioned a live debate with Bush along the lines of those in a U.S. presidential campaign, according to the network.
Rather reported on the interview during the evening newscast. CBS said it planned to broadcast excerpts on Tuesday and the entire interview on Wednesday.
Rather said that Saddam walked a little stiffly when he met with him but was calm and “unhurried” during the interview.
Regarding chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix’s order that Iraq destroy its Al-Samoud 2 missiles, Rather quoted Saddam as saying: “Iraq is allowed to prepare proper missiles and we are committed to that.”
Asked whether the Al-Samoud 2 missiles are “proper,” Saddam was quoted as replying: “We do not have missiles that go beyond the prescribed range.
The order was issued after international experts determined the missile flew farther than the 93-mile limit set down by the United Nations in 1991. Iraq maintains some of the missiles overshot the limit because they were tested without warheads and guidance systems.
“This is not a serious issue,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said of the reported debate offer. “There is no debating his need to disarm.”
Fleischer said Saddam’s comments about the Al Samouds represented “open defiance” of the United Nations. “He refuses even to acknowledge that the weapons are prohibited,” Fleischer said.
Iraq has until the end of the week to begin destroying the missiles, components and other related systems. If it fails to do so, that could give impetus to a draft U.N. resolution submitted Monday by the United States, Britain and Spain that would pave the way for war.
Iraq had suggested it was trying to persuade the United Nations to allow it to keep the missiles after technical modifications worked out in talks with U.N. technicians.
In New York, Blix said he was sending his chief deputy Demetrius Perricos to Baghdad to discuss the demand with Iraqi officials but that his order still stands.
“Well, we have set the date for the commencement of the destruction of these missiles and we expect that to be respected,” Blix said. “There will be a discussion about the pace of the destruction and Mr. Perricos as my deputy, will be there for that purpose.”
On Sunday, the reclusive Iraqi president met separately with Russian envoy Yevgeny Primakov, a former Soviet foreign minister and Russian prime minister, and Ramsey Clark, a former U.S. attorney-general prominent in the global anti-war movement.
Saddam told Primakov he would cooperate completely with U.N. inspectors tasked with verifying that Iraq has rid itself of weapons of mass destruction, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“Saddam Hussein said that there will be no hindrances to the work of inspectors,” the ministry said.
Clark came away with a similar impression, telling The Associated Press: “He’s thinking he’ll do anything that he reasonably can that is honorable and protective of the sovereignty of his people to prevent war.”
But Clark, who said Saddam appeared “remarkably relaxed,” also said the Iraqi president is convinced nothing he can do will prevent a U.S.-British attack because President Bush has already made up his mind.
“What he thinks is, no matter what Iraq’s performance is, the president will attack,” Clark said.
Earlier Monday, Fleischer said the destruction of Al Samoud 2 missiles would not satisfy Bush. He said stockpiles of sarin and VX nerve agent were still missing.
“This is not about public relations. This is about protecting the lives of the American people,” Fleischer said. “If Saddam Hussein destroys the missiles that he said he never had … you’ve got to wonder what other weapons does he have?”
Iraq declared the existence of the Al Samoud 2s as a short range missile in its 12,000-page report to the United Nations in December.
A top adviser to Saddam, Lt. Gen. Amer al-Saadi, said Monday that Iraq was still drafting its response to the order that Iraq begin destroying the missiles by Saturday.
“There is an open dialogue between us and (the weapons inspectors) and we hope that it will be settled,” he said.
Those comments implied that Iraq was holding out hope that the missiles could be modified to allow them to remain in Baghdad’s arsenal, possibly for use against invading U.S.-led forces.
The 93-mile limit – imposed after U.S.-led forces drove the Iraqi army from Kuwait – means Iraq is permitted to have missiles that could reach neighboring Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Syria and Jordan – but not Israel.
Earlier this month, Saddam gave his first Western television interview in more than a decade, speaking with a retired British lawmaker and peace activist, Tony Benn.
Saddam gave several interviews during the Gulf War in early 1991.
In one famous encounter, he spoke in a bungalow in Baghdad with Peter Arnett, CNN’s correspondent in Iraq. Arnett quoted Saddam as saying he could not predict how long the war would last but promised “lots of blood will be shed on every side” and said he was confident Iraq would prevail. Iraq was routed in that war, which started after it invaded neighboring Kuwait.