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Iraqis must play a major role in Saddam's trial, Bush says

WASHINGTON—President Bush said Monday that he had just one message for former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein: "Good riddance."

Bush used what he called his last news conference of the year to take a restrained bow for Saturday's capture of Saddam and to state his preference that the former dictator face Iraqi citizens when standing trial.

"I think what needs to happen is he needs to be brought to justice. And the Iraqi citizens need to be very much involved in the development of a system that brings him to justice," Bush said during a 40-minute session with reporters. "And there needs to be a public trial, and all the atrocities need to come out."

The president emphasized that whatever trial procedure is agreed on must "stand international scrutiny." He declined to say whether Saddam should face the death penalty.

"I have my own personal views," Bush said. "But my views aren't important in this matter. What matters is the views of the Iraqi citizens."

Told that the U.S. soldier who captured Saddam had said, "President Bush sends his greetings," the president didn't hold back when asked how he would greet Saddam.

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

The president disclosed that he had talked briefly to his father Sunday about Saddam's capture, itself unusual, for he rarely reveals conversations with the first President Bush. In this case, however, the two share a unique tie of having led America to war against Saddam, who also plotted to have the first President Bush killed during his April 1993 visit to Kuwait.

"I talked to my dad. He called me Sunday morning," the president said. "And it was a very brief conversation. He just said, `Congratulations, it's a great day for the country.' And I said: `It's a greater day for the Iraqi people.' And that's what I believe."

Since Saddam's capture, White House officials have avoided public gloating. Bush, however, allowed himself a smile when asked whether U.S. officials would negotiate with Saddam in hopes of finding weapons of mass destruction. When it was suggested that the president was scoffing at the notion, Bush replied:

"Laughing does not mean scoffing," provoking laughter. But then he answered seriously: "First of all, I don't trust Saddam Hussein. I don't believe he'll tell the truth. 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."

Earlier, in opening remarks, Bush hailed Saddam's capture in terms echoing his initial remarks Sunday. "The nightmare of Baathist tyranny is finally over," he said, referring to Saddam's political party. Bush also warned that "the terrorists in Iraq remain dangerous. The work of our coalition remains difficult and will require further sacrifice."

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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