President Bush Calls Saddam a 'Disgusting Tyrant'

W A S H I N G T O N, Dec. 16, 2003 -- Fresh from the success of capturing Saddam Hussein, President Bush told Diane Sawyer in an exclusive interview that the Iraqi leader should face the "ultimate penalty" for his legacy of violence in Iraq.

Bush told Sawyer, "He is a torturer, a murderer, and they had rape rooms, and this is a disgusting tyrant who deserves justice, the ultimate justice. But that will be decided not by the president of the United States, but by the citizens of Iraq in one form or another."

Bush added that Iraqis are "capable of conducting the trial themselves."

Saying he's glad that the Saddam chapter in Iraqi history "is over now," Bush added, "the world is better off because we got rid of him."

Watch Diane Sawyer's exclusive interview with President Bush on a special edition of Primetime at 8 p.m. ET.

Bush said the capture of the elusive Iraqi leader did not 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. But there's no finality for me. There's a lot more to be done in Iraq." However, he felt this was a "joyous moment for the Iraqi people."

The United States should continue to play a leading role in the war on terror, which is the ultimate challenge of the 21st century, said Bush. "My job is to do everything I can to protect America and Americans," he said.

The United States must achieve objectives in the war on terror, while also honoring the memories of those who have died by terror's rule. Bush told Sawyer he made a pledge at Ground Zero in New York City to never forget the lessons of freedom and his solemn duty to protect the country.

When asked if there is any price that was too high to pay for freedom in Iraq, Bush responded the United States and its coalition partners should not stop until they reach their objectives. "The way to dishonor fallen soldiers is to quit too early," he said.

First Instinct: Bad News

Amid a presidency marked by dramatic moments, including the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Bush's first instinct was that something bad had happened when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called him at Camp David on a secure line. Instead, Rumsfeld told him they thought they had caught Saddam Hussein. But Bush was cautious, having been disappointed before.

Then Condoleezza Rice called at 5:15 a.m. Sunday morning to confirm that the man was, in fact, Saddam. "I felt joy for the Iraqi people, a sense of accomplishment for the troops," he told Sawyer.

Even though there must have been an overwhelming sense of relief at the White House Sunday, the administration kept a lid on the elation. Bush has faced pressure, skepticism and criticism on the United States' continued involvement in Iraq, and catching Saddam was a crucial moment for his presidency.

Not only was it a strategic victory for his administration, it was personal vindication. As the soldier who first greeted Saddam as he crawled out of his underground "spider hole" said: "President Bush sends his regards."

President Bush has often reminded the American public that Saddam "tried to kill my dad," recalling an attempt on the elder President George Bush's life in 1993. When Bush shared the news with his father, he said, he "could sense a great deal of pride in his voice."

Re-election Competition?

Even though Democratic front-runner Howard Dean built his campaign on his opposition to the war in Iraq, he made a gracious statement Sunday, calling it a great day for the U.S. Armed Forces, a great day for the Iraqi people and even a great day for the Bush administration.

But it was also a great day for Bush's approval rating and his quest for reelection. Faced with struggling approval ratings, the capture did boost Americans' perception of President Bush's handling of the conflict in Iraq — 58 percent now approve, up 10 points since mid-November. That's the highest since July, when Bush's ratings began to slide in the face of attacks on U.S. forces, according to an ABCNEWS/Washington Post poll.

When asked how Bush felt about his Democratic competitors, he said he'd respond when the party nominates a candidate. He said he looks forward to debating his record and intentions with a Democratic candidate.

"Everybody's beatable in a democracy," said Bush. "And that's the great thing about a democracy. People get to make that decision. I know how I'm voting."

Bush reiterated Vice President Dick Cheney will continue to serve with him, if he's "fortunate enough" to win, but Bush has yet to make any decisions about his Cabinet choices.

But in the meantime, he said, it is his job "to keep the country safe."

Stressing Tolerance

On Nov. 18, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that homosexual marriage is legal in their state. Bush told Sawyer he would support a Constitutional amendment "which would honor marriage between a man and a woman."

"The position of this administration is that whatever legal arrangements people want to make, they're allowed to make, so long as it's embraced by the state or at the state level," he told Sawyer.

Bush also stressed that the importance of understanding people, "but tolerance and belief in marriage aren't mutually exclusive points of view."

"I do believe in the sanctity of marriage," he added. "It's an important differentiation … but I don't see that as conflict with being a tolerant person or an understanding person."

Faith in the Job

A theme that has followed Bush throughout his presidency is his faith and the role religion plays in his leadership. When asked if he prayed to God for the capture of Saddam Hussein, he answered no. He prefers to pray for wisdom, strength and guidance.

"It's a leap of faith to understand," he told Sawyer. "But I am a confident person, because I believe in the values of America. I believe in what we stand for."

He said he also has great confidence in his Cabinet and the team he leads in his administration. "I'm a delegator because I trust the people I've asked to join the team," he said. "That makes it easier to be president."

Watch Diane Sawyer's full interview with President Bush on Primetime at 8 p.m. ET. Check your local listings for when Primetime airs in your area. ABCNEWS Radio will also air the interview, starting at 8:06 p.m. ET and coordinated with when Primetime airs.