Tuesday, December 16, 2003

President Bush yesterday denounced Saddam Hussein in unusually personal terms, essentially calling him a coward for hiding in a hole before his capture and discounting any information the former dictator might provide as “untrustworthy.”

“Good riddance,” Mr. Bush said when asked during a press conference for his “greeting” to Saddam. He even addressed the captured ex-dictator in the second person.

“The world is better off without you, Mr. Saddam Hussein,” he said. “I find it very interesting that when the heat got on, you dug yourself a hole and you crawled in it.”

Mr. Bush also said it was “an absurd insinuation” for Howard Dean to muse aloud whether the president had advance knowledge of the September 11 terrorist attacks, marking the first time that Mr. Bush has responded directly to mounting criticism from the Democratic presidential front-runner.

Although the president had just finished assuring reporters that he would not wade into the political fray until much later in next year’s campaign, he lashed out at Mr. Dean after being asked by The Washington Times about the former Vermont governor publicly entertaining the possibility that Mr. Bush knew terrorists would strike on September 11.

“There’s time for politics,” stammered the clearly irritated president. “There’s time for politics and I — it’s an absurd insinuation.”

The counterattack came during an otherwise upbeat press conference that seemed to upstage Mr. Dean just hours before the presidential aspirant rolled out his foreign policy in a major speech in Los Angeles. It was the first time that Mr. Bush had fielded questions from reporters since Saddam was caught by U.S. forces in a cramped and squalid hole on the outskirts of Tikrit, Iraq, on Saturday.

“Our brave troops, combined with good intelligence, found you,” said Mr. Bush, still addressing the vanquished dictator in the second person. “And you’ll be brought to justice, something you did not afford the people you brutalized in your own country.”

The president revealed that one of the phone calls he received Sunday morning, after news of Saddam’s capture became public, was from his father, former President George Bush, who went to war against Saddam in 1991 and was the target of a foiled assassination plot by the dictator.

“It was a very brief conversation,” the president said. “He just said, ‘Congratulations, it’s a great day for the country.’ And I said, ‘It’s a great day for the Iraqi people.’”

Asked whether Saddam should be charged in the plot to assassinate the elder Mr. Bush and the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the president said, “that will all be decided by the lawyers.”

The president hinted that he favored the death penalty for Saddam, but refused to say so publicly. He said it was important for Iraqis to decide the ex-dictator’s punishment.

“I’ve got my own personal views of how he ought to be treated,” said the president, a staunch advocate of the death penalty in the United States. “But my views, my personal views, aren’t important in this matter. What matters is the views of the Iraqi citizens.”

Although many analysts have speculated that Saddam might provide valuable intelligence to interrogators, Mr. Bush was pessimistic.

“I don’t trust Saddam; I don’t believe he’ll tell the truth,” the president said. “He didn’t tell the truth for over a decade; I just can’t believe he’s going to change his ways just because he happens to be captured. And so I don’t think we ought to trust his word.”

After eight months of uncertainty about Saddam’s fate, the president appeared to relish deriding the captured dictator in blunt terms.

“He’s a liar; he’s a torturer; he’s a murderer,” Mr. Bush said. “He’s a person that was willing to destroy his country and kill a lot of his fellow citizens.”

Numerous reporters at the press conference tried to draw the president into discussing campaign politics. But he insisted that he would be too busy governing to respond to attacks from Democrats until well into next year, as The Times had reported last week.

“Let me just tell you what the strategy is of this administration: Forget politics,” Mr. Bush said earlier in the press conference, which was held in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House. “People can debate all they want; I’m going to do my job.

“We can get this straight early in the process,” he admonished reporters. “I’m confident during the numerous press conferences I’ll be having next year — just like I had this year — you’ll be asking me questions about this political statement or that political statement and my answer is going to be the same.”

He added that he will not mix it up politically “until I’m ready to engage.” Even after briefly breaking that pledge to accuse Mr. Dean of “an absurd insinuation,” Mr. Bush refused to say anything else about his challenger, who first spoke about the topic during a Dec. 1 interview on National Public Radio.

“The most interesting theory that I’ve heard so far — and it’s nothing more than a theory, I can’t think, it can’t be proved — is that [Mr. Bush] was warned ahead of time by the Saudis,” Mr. Dean told interviewer Diane Rehm.

“Why would you say that, governor,” asked Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday on Dec. 7.

“Because there are people who believe that,” Mr. Dean said. “We don’t know what happened in 9/11.”

“Do you believe that?” Mr. Wallace said.

“No, I don’t believe that,” Mr. Dean replied. “I can’t imagine the president of the United States doing that, but we don’t know, and it would be a nice thing to know.”

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