In two television interviews Wednesday, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein declared that Kuwait will be part of his country forever and scoffed at the idea that U.S. forces could kill him in an air attack, saying “the United States is not the Angel of Death.”
“In all of history, not one head of state has been killed in an attack from the air,” a smiling Hussein said in a rambling two-hour interview with a French television anchorman. “Can you give me an example?”
In a 90-minute interview with CBS News anchorman Dan Rather, Hussein said no one should “dismiss any possibility for new ideas,” but insisted that he will not negotiate a withdrawal from Kuwait.
“Kuwait is part of Iraq,” he said through a translator.
Asked whether that meant forever, he replied, “We have said this, and the legislative bodies in Iraq have issued a clear decree, a clear decision, saying that Kuwait is an Iraqi province.” Any negotiations, he suggested, would involve the question of “withdrawal of the United States from our sacred areas.”
His inflexible and defiant public posture is significant, because Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait is likely to be the key issue in scheduled discussions today in Jordan between U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz. Perez de Cuellar’s initiative is seen as the most important effort yet to solve the crisis diplomatically. “We know nothing about the United Nations,” Hussein told Rather. However, he added that if Perez de Cuellar “submits any of these ideas, we will, of course, talk to him because we respect Mr. (Perez) de Cuellar as he represents the United Nations.”
The Iraqi president also denied reports that he had offered, through back channels to the White House, a negotiated Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.
Newsday, the Long Island and New York newspaper, reported Wednesday that Iraq told the White House it would allow foreigners to leave and pull its troops from Kuwait if U.N. sanctions are lifted and Iraq is guaranteed access to the Persian Gulf, as well as control of an oil field that crosses into Kuwait.
Several Bush Administration officials said Wednesday that they see no reason to believe the report.
The French interviewer, Patrick Poivre d’Avor, asked Hussein if he constantly moved his office or stayed in a bunker to avoid an air attack.
“Saddam Hussein has confronted the greatest dangers,” the Iraqi leader said. “You are surely aware of the history of Saddam Hussein. And the United States is not the Angel of Death.”
The statements seemed to reflect a preoccupation with the notion that the United States is hoping to cripple the Iraqi government by removing Hussein, either by assassination or a coup.
At another point in the French interview, Hussein said: “The big superpower is gambling if they think they can win a war simply by getting rid of Saddam Hussein.
“In any case, we are optimistic,” he said. “The future belongs to us. For the United States to win, they must prevail on three fronts: They must defeat the Iraqi army; they must destroy the Iraqi economy, and they must bring down the government. Only one of those things will not be enough.”
In response to a question about the frequent comparison of Hussein with the Nazi German dictator Adolf Hitler, he said: “What about Algeria and what about the people of Algeria? What do they think about Saddam Hussein? What about the people of Tunisia? What about Jordan? What can we say about the Arabs of Europe? Is Saddam Hussein there forcing them to have opinions or forcing them to act the way they act? Do they say that I am Hitler or a dictator in those places?”
The French interview began at a Baghdad center for international conferences where the Iraqis had assembled more than a dozen civilian hostages, including several from the United States. The hostages were shown being served by waiters offering silver trays of iced fruit juice.
The interviews were said to be the first that Hussein has granted to individual Western reporters since his invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2.
Asked by Rather whether Iraq would use chemical weapons other than in response to nuclear attack by the United States, Hussein avoided a direct answer. “In any and all cases, never imagine that we are going to relinquish Iraq,” he said. " . . . Expect that Iraq is not going to be an easy bite to swallow.”
The Iraqi president also warned that in a war with Iraq, “the harm caused to the invaders who come here would be greater than whatever they suffered in Vietnam. Iraq will come out victorious.”
The White House declined to comment on the interview.
As in earlier appearances, Hussein reached out to touch the heads of the children, several of whom flinched. But most of it took place as Hussein paced back and forth in a marble reception hall, military aides at his side. He spoke in Arabic, and his remarks were translated into French and English.
Hussein spoke of his disappointment that the French government had joined in the international sanctions against Iraq, and of his belief in the ultimate victory of his country over the United States.
Poivre d’Avor, broadcasting later from Amman, Jordan, said the videocassette of the interview was confiscated immediately after the interview by Iraqi officials, who kept it for eight hours before returning it. But he said that only one question had been deleted.
He said he had asked Hussein, “How can a proud man like you hide behind women and children?” Even though Hussein did not reply, he said, the question was deleted from the tape.
Hussein appeared poised and confident, dressed in a gray suit of European cut and a green tie. From time to time, he would turn to a military aide for smiling, head-bobbing encouragement.
He reserved some of his harshest criticism for France. For the past 20 years, since French President Charles de Gaulle embraced a Middle East policy with Iraq as the pivot, France has been Iraq’s best friend in the West. The French government supported Hussein’s revolutionary government in its struggle to nationalize the British-controlled oil fields.
It stood by the Iraqi government in its costly war with Iran. France was second only to the Soviet Union in supplying arms to Iraq, and Iraq still owes France an estimated $4.5 billion, nearly a quarter of the Iraqi foreign debt.
Thus, Iraqi officials felt betrayed when the French government joined other countries in supporting the sanctions against Iraq.
“The only blame we have is against France,” Saddam said angrily. “We don’t directly blame the United States or Great Britain, because they were never objective. They were never our friends.”
Tumulty reported from Washington and Tempest from Paris.