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Saddam Wants to Debate Bush; Iraqi Leader May Not Destroy Missiles - 2003-02-25

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has told an American interviewer he wants to debate U.S. President George W. Bush, and he may not destroy Iraq's al-Samoud 2 missiles as demanded by U.N. inspectors. Political analysts in the region think the Iraqi president would be making a mistake if he fails to destroy the missiles, and they describe his call for a public debate as an attempt to wage war by what they call other means.

During the three-hour interview, President Hussein indicated his unwillingness to destroy Iraq's al-Samoud 2 missiles, as demanded by chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix. Mr. Blix said the missiles can fly beyond a U.N.-mandated limit of 150 kilometers and has ordered them destroyed beginning Saturday.

Iraqi officials have insisted the range of the missiles falls below the mandated limit once they are loaded with guidance and control systems and warheads.

Saddam Hussein said Iraq does not have missiles that exceed the proscribed range. But Abdullah el-Ashaal, an expert on Arab affairs who teaches at several Cairo universities, said if Mr. Blix says the al-Samoud 2 missiles are in violation of the limits, the Iraqi leader has no choice but to destroy them.

"In this case he should destroy them. Saddam Hussein can not tell something which is established in the resolutions. So if Mr. Blix is convinced what Saddam said is wrong I think the decision now is with the inspectors. This is the spirit of the resolutions itself, even in the resolution 1441. So while you are taking the side of Saddam Hussein when he is right we have to be against him when he is wrong," Mr. el-Ashaal said.

Sunday, the Iraqi leader met with former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. Mr. Primakov tried and failed to negotiate a peaceful settlement with Saddam Hussein just prior to the 1990 Gulf war. Following Sunday's visit, Mr. Primakov told reporters the Iraqi leader had promised to fully cooperate with the inspectors.

Political science professor Mona Makrahm Ebeid at American University in Cairo says she is surprised by Saddam Hussein's attitude regarding the al-Samoud 2 missiles, especially following Mr. Primakov's visit to Baghdad.

"He is being ridiculously stubborn, I think. He seems to bet on world public opinion, on the Arabs, on the French initiative and so on. I'm surprised that it comes after Primakov's visit. This is the surprising element because Primakov is maybe the person who knows him best, has known him for 30 years now. I think he's just being provocative," Mr. Ebeid said.

Saddam Hussein is also saying he wants to conduct an internationally televised public debate with President Bush, saying he is ready for a direct dialogue with the U.S. president.

The White House has dismissed the offer.

The head of the political science department at Cairo University, Hassan Nafae, says the offer indicates the Iraqi leader is trying to wage a different kind of war. "He knows that he is engaged in a war to win public opinion. So what he wanted to say is simply that President Bush has no point, he has no case, his case is weak and I can defeat him in a public debate. I might not be able to defeat him in a military confrontation but I can win a debate. It is a kind of war by other means. That's it," he said.

The head of the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies says President Hussein's latest public statements have only helped convince the Arab world that war is inevitable. Professor Abdel Moneim Said says the Arab world is beginning to turn against the Iraqi president.

"I think there is a lot of resignation that there will be a war despite the fact there is a strong opposition to the war. However, what's new is there is strong opposition also to Saddam. I see a strong calling on Saddam to decline power, to hold elections under the supervision of the United Nations and these elections will call on all Iraqi opposition to participate and to make a new, free, constitution. For the first time there is strong demands on Saddam to abdicate his position," Mr. Said explained.

But stepping down from power is something Saddam Hussein has said he will never do.