WASHINGTON—President Bush said Tuesday that Saddam Hussein deserved "the ultimate penalty"—death—for atrocities he committed as Iraq's dictator.
Bush's remarks during an interview Tuesday night on ABC News' "Prime Time Live" were his strongest to date on what he thinks should happen to Saddam, whom he drove from power with a pre-emptive military invasion earlier this year and who was captured hiding in a hole Saturday.
The president's comments raised the question of whether he crossed a line of propriety by intruding into the realm of the judiciary by pronouncing judgment of guilt and a recommended sentence for a man awaiting trial. Because Saddam is in the custody of the U.S. military, which Bush heads as commander in chief, his opinion holds considerable weight and risks, at the least, roiling global diplomatic waters.
"He's a torturer, a murderer, and they had rape rooms, and this is a disgusting tyrant who deserves justice, the ultimate justice," Bush said, according to a partial transcript of his remarks posted on ABC's Web site. "But that will be decided not by the president of the United States, but by the citizens of Iraq in one form or another."
White House officials acknowledged that Bush was referring to the death penalty.
"Is there a problem of prejudgment here? In a sense, there is," said Joe Stork, the acting executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa Division. "The president should be careful about what he says in this regard. It's one thing to say `getting the ultimate penalty' and it's another thing to say `they should get the ultimate penalty after being convicted in a court of law.' Let's assume he meant after a judicial trial."
White House officials said the president repeatedly had noted that Saddam's fate should be determined in a fair trial.
"But he's made it very clear that it's not his view that matters," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said. "The Iraqi people will be the ones that will hold him accountable."
During a White House news conference Monday, Bush was reluctant to offer an opinion on what should happen to Saddam. "I have my own personal views," he said. "But my views aren't important in this matter."
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Anan said Monday that he opposed the death penalty. Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth has warned that a Saddam trial mustn't be "perceived as vengeful justice. For that reason, international jurists must be involved in the process."
In other remarks to ABC, Bush said the capture of Saddam didn't mark a sense of finality for him: "The only thing that's final about it is that the Iraqi people don't have to worry about Saddam ever again. There's a lot more to be done in Iraq. The way to dishonor fallen soldiers is to quit too early."
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said earlier Tuesday that the CIA would oversee the interrogation of Saddam.
"I have asked (CIA Director) George Tenet to be responsible for the handling of the interrogation of Saddam Hussein," Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference. "He (Tenet) and his people will be the regulator over the interrogations—who will do it, the questions that will get posed, the management of the information that flows from those interrogations."
The U.S. military would maintain custody of Saddam, and could—if called on by the CIA—conduct the questioning, Rumsfeld said.
He defended the U.S. military's treatment of Saddam since his capture, reacting stridently to questions about whether releasing a videotape of an unkempt, haggard Saddam receiving a medical examination violated international law against displaying prisoners of war as objects of contempt or ridicule.
Rumsfeld contended that showing the videotape may save lives if it convinces any pro-Saddam insurgents to disarm or if it reassures Iraqis that Saddam will never return to power and punish them if they inform on guerrillas.
Similarly, Rumsfeld defended presenting Saddam to members of the Iraqi Governing Council and some of his former top aides, such as Tariq Aziz, for initial identification.
"Prior to the time we had DNA proof, knowing that his doubles had used plastic surgery and could very well have done duplicate tattoos and bullet holes and moles that would make it appear they were Saddam Hussein, the decision was made to have him publicly identified," Rumsfeld said.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): krtcapture
GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): krtcapture