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Hussein Challenges Bush to Debate

Saddam Hussein has challenged President Bush to a debate on live television, according to excerpts from a CBS interview, and indicated he won't heed U.N. orders to destroy his Al Samoud 2 missiles.

However, a top adviser said the U.N. order was "still being studied."

In the three-hour interview in the Iraq capital, CBS television quoted Saddam as calling for the debate via satellite linkup. The White House said the debate offer was not serious.

Also in the interview, Saddam belittled an order from chief weapons inspector Hans Blix to begin destroying the Al Samoud 2 system by the end of the week.

"Iraq is allowed to prepare proper missiles and we are committed to that," the network quoted Saddam as saying.

Asked whether the Al Samoud 2 missiles are "proper," Saddam was quoted as replying: "We do not have missiles that go beyond the proscribed range."

But a top adviser, Lt. Gen. Amer al-Saadi, said Tuesday that Iraq still had not made a decision on the missiles.

"Our stance is still being studied," he said.

Asked about the CBS interview, al-Saadi said he had not seen it and could not comment.

Other recent visitors, however, have said Saddam appeared eager to cooperate fully with the U.N. inspectors in a bid to avert a U.S.-led war. They include former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark and former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov.

Clark said Saddam sees little incentive to cooperate with the inspectors, however, because he believes Bush is set on war.

"What he thinks is, no matter what Iraq's performance is, the president will attack," Clark said.

Bush will not be satisfied even if Saddam does destroy the missiles, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. 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 did declare the missiles in its 12,000-page report to the United Nations in December.

In the CBS interview, conducted by anchor Dan Rather, Saddam challenged Bush to a televised debate via satellite linkup, along the lines of those in a U.S. presidential campaign, the network said.

"I am ready to conduct a direct dialogue -- a debate -- with your president," CBS quoted Saddam as saying. "I will say what I want and he will say what he wants."

Rather said he asked Saddam if his offer of a debate was a joke.

He quoted the president as saying, "This is something proposed in earnest out of my respect for the people of the United States and the people of Iraq and the people of the world. I call for this because war is not a joke.

"As leaders, why don't we use this opportunity?"

Fleischer said Saddam's comments on the missiles constituted "open defiance" of the United Nations and said Bush was not taking the debate offer seriously.

"This is not a serious issue," Fleischer said. "There is no debating his need to disarm."

CBS said it intended to broadcast portions of the Saddam interview Tuesday, but Iraqi television, which recorded the three-hour interview, had insisted on translating it and making copies and still had not delivered the tapes.

The network said longer portions of the interview would air Wednesday.

Saddam, who often appears on Iraqi television but rarely makes public appearances, gave his first Western television interview in more than a decade earlier this month, speaking with a retired British lawmaker and peace activist, Tony Benn.

Al-Thawra, the newspaper of Iraq's ruling Baath Party, said Tuesday in an editorial that Bush was pushing a reluctant world toward war.

"Bush's insistence on ignoring the international community and using pressure and blackmail to force Security Council members to accept his evil wishes ... is leaving the Iraqis with only one choice: to defend their land, independence, dignity and national integrity," it said.

Blix's order came after international experts determined the Al Samoud 2 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 or guidance systems.

Iraq has until the end of the week to begin destroying the missiles, components and related systems.

If it refuses, U.N. officials said Blix is likely to report the failure to the Security Council, which would then have to decide on any action. A refusal could give impetus to a draft U.N. resolution submitted Monday by the United States, Britain and Spain to pave the way for war.

The United Nations says the order is non-negotiable, but Blix said he was sending his chief deputy, Demetrius Perricos, to Baghdad.

"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."

The weapons inspectors visited four missile facilities Tuesday, according to Iraq's Information Ministry. They also went to an explosives plant, a pesticide factory and an agricultural college.

U.S. warplanes, meanwhile, bombed Iraqi surface-to-surface missile systems in northern Iraq after Iraqi forces moved the missiles into a U.S.-patrolled "no-fly" zone, the U.S. military said in a statement.

U.S. and British planes have been enforcing a no-fly zone north of the 36th parallel since the aftermath the of the 1991 Gulf War. A similar zone exists in southern Iraq. They are intended to protect minority Kurds in the north and Shiite Muslims in the south from Iraqi government forces.