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THE SITUATION ROOM

Saddam Hussein May Have Only Hours Left to Live

Aired December 29, 2006 - 17:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And of course, to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time.
ED HENRY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Standing by, CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you today's top stories.

MALVEAUX: Happening now, execution watch. It's 1:00 a.m. Saturday in Iraq where there's word that Saddam Hussein may have hours, perhaps less before he's but to death.

HENRY: An Iraqi official says the paperwork for Hussein's execution is now complete. And a lawyer says Hussein's fate now in God's hands. We will bring you the very latest and we'll ask Iraq's deputy ambassador to the United Nations when he thinks Saddam Hussein may be executed.

MALVEAUX: And how might any of this affect American troops in Iraq. The U.S. military is bracing for possible violence. This amid new word that U.S. military commanders have developed plans to increase troop levels in Iraq as an option for President Bush. Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Suzanne Malveaux.

HENRY: I'm Ed Henry. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

MALVEAUX : It appears Saddam Hussein may not be live to see the new year or even another day. Right now, there are suggestions the former Iraqi dictator will soon die by hanging. An execution that could come at any moment. But CNN has learned that Hussein's attorneys have filed papers in a U.S. court to block the execution.

HENRY: Now, that lawsuit would apply if the U.S. is still holding Hussein. One Iraqi judge says a handover of Hussein from U.S. to Iraqi custody is ongoing. But a Hussein lawyers says that's already happened.

For more, let's turn to one of Hussein's many lawyers, Giovanni DiStefano, he joins us now on the phone from Rome. Thanks again for joining us and I wonder, what's the very latest? What have you learned in the last hour?

GIOVANNI DISTEFANO, SADDAM HUSSEIN'S ATTORNEY: Nothing more than our last conversation, that my colleague is still before a district judge in the District of Columbia, in Washington there. And if a temporary restraining order is granted. And incidentally, we filed that order last night at 9:32 p.m. And it's a further order from the 18th of December application that I filed with the United States district court there. So if that is granted, Saddam Hussein will go nowhere.

HENRY: But do you really have much hope that that stay would be ordered since a U.S. court doesn't really appear to necessarily have authority to do that? The trial was, you know, took place in Iraq. And the Iraqi government should be in charge here.

DISTEFANO: Well, it's nothing to do with -- we're not appealing on the basic of an unfair trial, even though he certainly had an unfair trial in Iraq. This is a United States court matter. It's a civil action which an individual in America took against Saddam Hussein and others under the Alien Tort Act there. And there the consequences of such are very much that the American jurisdiction applies.

And if America has custody of Saddam Hussein, and if they had custody from the 18th of December onwards, President Bush would be in contempt of court if he was to deliver Saddam Hussein to the Iraqi authorities for the purpose of execution. Because Saddam Hussein would not be free to be able to have this constitutional rights and defend himself in the civil courts.

MALVEAUX: But Giovanni, are you getting any sense of a timetable here, how this is going to affect the plan that has been put forward to certainly put Saddam Hussein to death within that 30-day period? There's a lot of discussion in the Iraqi government to do it before the new year. What is the timetable? How does this affect how this has been laid out?

DISTEFANO: If the judge grants the stay today, nothing's going to happen until the 7th of January. So even if we get a one-hour stay, the Iraqis will not execute Saddam Hussein during the religious period, which will then. But we imagine that we will, you know, we have asked for a 12-week stay. That's what we've asked for. If we get a 30-day stay, we will go past the date that the Iraqis and the Iraqi law should be executed and that would be required for a new sentencing process, that's as we understand it.

MALVEAUX: Iraqis are not bound by U.S. law. That doesn't quite make sense.

DISTEFANO: No, but Americans are. Because they have custody. They are bound by U.S. law. And if the United States district court judge grants a temporary restraining order against Bush, Gates and two of the military commander who have physical custody of him as we speak, it would be contempt of court for them to breach that order and the consequences for President Bush would be impeachment.

HENRY: But, now, earlier, Giovanni, off the air, you told me that in fact Saddam Hussein was in the hands of the Iraqi authorities. So what can you do, if anything, to stop them from going ahead with the execution? But also you, you told me that you feared that he could have already been executed. That he could be in Iraqi hands and we wouldn't know about it for some time. Tell me about that fear as well.

DISTEFANO: Well, that, of course, was always possible. But, I mean, happily, we've had confirmation in the last one hour that he's still in the American custody. And as I say, the reason he's in American custody is because of the court action that we're proceeding as we speak.

America, simply, no matter what we say about America, they will abide by their own law. They may overlook international law. But they will not violate their own law. And nobody will go against a United States district court judge. That I can tell you. No American will. Not even President Bush.

MALVEAUX: If we can speak frankly, if Saddam Hussein was executed, would it be in your interest to disclose that before it actually happens or afterwards?

DISTEFANO: Well, it's not in my interest to disclose anything.

MALVEAUX: You're his attorney.

DISTEFANO: My obligation will then fall to the family. And if Saddam Hussein is executed, my role will be to make sure that the body of Saddam Hussein and Mr. Al Bandar and al Tikriti will go rightfully to their family.

We must remember that this man is a father, he is a husband, he is a grandfather, he is a brother, he is a human being. Say what we want about him. But he's a human being, and he has to be treated even at least in death that way.

HENRY: The earlier, you told me off the air that you had an e- mail from the U.S. military saying he had been transferred to the Iraqi authorities. A moment ago, you said you found out in the last hour that he's actually still in U.S. hands. Let's clarify and get this once and for all what did you find out from the U.S. military earlier today and what did you find out in the last hour that tells you that in fact Saddam Hussein is still in U.S. authority?

DISTEFANO: Well, at 4:47 we received an e-mail.

HENRY: And that was Rome time.

DISTEFANO: And they also received the same canceling visits that had been arranged for tomorrow, in fact, there. And in fact, advising not to travel tomorrow to Iraq. However, since the United States were on notice, I then sent an e-mail, serving -- reserving the United States with notice of the proceedings that were ongoing. And what I imagined has happened, is that although America may have given Saddam Hussein to the Iraqis, there may be a condition for such that they can effectively call him back if the United States district court judge grants a temporary restraining order. Because as I said, the consequences are extremely grave for anyone who violates a court order. It's a contempt of court. It's a jailable offense. And for the president, would lead to an impeachment. Which I'm sure the Democrats would be more than pleased to advance. But that's not my business. My business is in saving my client's life.

MALVEAUX: Giovanni, you said before, of course, it's up to the family to decide how Saddam Hussein's death would be disclosed to the public. And what would happen next with the body. Have you spoken with family members? I know that he met with half brothers yesterday. What are their desires, their wishes? Do they want to make this public right away? To are they going to give this time after the Muslim holiday? What is your sense at that family is looking to do here?

DISTEFANO: In the unlikely event, and I pray that he's not executed, I'm sure that the Iraqi government will be blowing trumpets and that everybody knows that to be the case.

The family, of course, must about allowed to grieve. They must have their period of grieving. As I said, he's a father. A grandfather. He's a brother. He is an uncle, he is a husband. And those are things that we must respect in the event that that happens. I pray it doesn't happen, because the consequences will be very, very severe for an awful lot of people. And as I said, there will be potentially a river of blood that will flow throughout the Middle East. And I really pray that that doesn't happen.

HENRY: Talk about that. What kind of reaction do you think there will be in the Middle East? Will there be more violence? Talk about what you think the reaction will be in the Muslim world.

DISTEFANO: Well, you have half the population that want Saddam Hussein dead and half the population that want him back as president. The problem is half the population is 14 million people. That's a hell of a lot of people to have against you or for you. So you're going to get a reaction. And the tragic consequences are that the reaction will be against the American government. And against America.

Now, in this case, I thank God that America has actually has custody of Saddam Hussein. Because if they hadn't custody of Saddam Hussein there would summary justice three years ago.

So that is the real tragedy, that human life will be in people who are innocent of anything. And that would be the American military and Americans all over the world. And that will be tragic and it's not something that I would condone whatsoever, nor would I advance and I really pray it doesn't happen.

MALVEAUX: Giovanni, I want to read you something that we just received here from the Associated Press. A news alert from an unnamed top Iraqi official.

I am going to read it verbatim here. It says "top Iraqi official says Saddam Hussein will be executed before 6:00 a.m. Saturday Baghdad time. I believe that's 1:00 in the morning, Baghdad time now. That's in five hours. Have you gotten any notice of this? Any notification that this is going to happen?

DISTEFANO: No, the Pentagon have also said that he will not be executed -- or he may not be executed for the next 24 hours. Everything will depend upon what the United States district court judge does. And, you know, as soon as we have notice of that, of course, I'm sure that everybody will be on -- you know, will be on alert for that. If he grants the temporary restraining order, that is the end of the matter. America will not violate that order until further order, that is for sure.

And if we save his life today, he will live until the 7th of January, at least.

MALVEAUX: So Giovanni, after you finish this interview with us, who are you going to contact, who are you going to call or e-mail to find out the latest about your client?

DISTEFANO: Obviously, I'm going to speak to a lawyer who's -- he's in court, I've been trying to call him. You've also been trying to call him. But he's still in court there. We will know as soon as we will know if that restraining order is granted and Saddam Hussein is going nowhere.

HENRY: But why do you think, why do you believe that Saddam Hussein is still in U.S. custody? Earlier today, you told me had you an e-mail from the U.S. military saying he was in fact in Iraqi hands, number one. And number two, you just heard Suzanne this Associated Press report quoting a top Iraqi official saying he's go to be executed in the next five hours. That would suggest he's not in U.S. hands. He is going to be executed by the Iraqi authorities.

Who told you he's still in U.S. hands?

DISTEFANO: Well, you know, these are the sources from the pentagon. In great fairness, it's your own sources that I am quoting at the bottom of the screen, that I have not spoken to anyone in the Pentagon. And I know we have court proceedings at the moment. And I know that the United States of America will not violate -- they may violate international law, but they will not violate their own law.

HENRY: Let me interrupt you. The U.S. State Department has been saying in recent hours that Saddam Hussein is still in U.S. custody. You may be referring to the State Department. But we now have this alert from the Associated Press saying Saddam Hussein, quoting a top Iraqi official that her will be executed in the next five hours. That would square with what you told me earlier.

You said that you yourself had a credible source, you identified it, it sounded like an Iraqi official telling you that Saddam Hussein would be executed within hours. What did that source tell you?

DISTEFANO: Well it told me exactly what the top Iraqi -- supposedly, top Iraqi source has stated. But it's subject to the ongoing court proceedings. Because as I receive repeat for the 10th time, if there is a temporary restraining order, the United States of America are very responsible. And they will not violate their own law. That is the situation.

HENRY: But based on the information you got earlier, and based on the information that just came across this alert from the Associated Press it suggests that the court matter that you're talking about in Washington, DC and the United States is not affecting it. That things are moving ahead in Iraq rather rapidly.

DISTEFANO: Well when you have pending court proceedings, if the judge does not grant us a temporary restraining order, these are things that happen in America, you go to the Supreme Court. But the process of execution still continues. Because if the application is dismissed. The execution proceeds. So it's absolutely normal. It's no different than any American court situation. There's always last- minute application and last-minute appeals. That's the situation.

MALVEAUX: Giovanni DiStefano, thank you very much. Of course it's very clear that everything is in flux. There's a lot of confusion here about just where your client is at the time. I want to go to our own Aneesh Raman in Baghdad to get a sense of whether or not you know physically where Saddam Hussein may be about where what Associated Press wire says that in fact this execution may take place within five hours or so.

That is 10:00 Eastern our time this evening.

ANEESH RAMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Suzanne, let's start there. It does not suggest, if according to these reports that the execution would take place at 6:00 a.m. local. That Saddam Hussein is already in Iraqi custody. The reason, is that that handover is one of the final steps before Saddam Hussein is executed. A handover from U.S. to Iraqi control and was one appellate judge told us earlier today, after that handover, the execution could and he said would be carried out almost immediately.

So we could see that handover come essentially moments before this execution actually takes place. We can tell you as well every government official that CNN has contacted has been told to be on alert, among them government officials who expect to witness his execution. They are awaiting word from the office of Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as to when this will happen.

We have heard as well from Shia member of parliament who said he saw gallows within the Green Zone where a judge, a nurse and a cleric are standing by. Again, waiting word from Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.

All indications on the ground point to this execution coming very soon. Possibly in the next few hours. The big question, the source of confusion has been where is Saddam Hussein at this moment? Is he in U.S. custody? Is he in Iraqi custody? U.S. officials have up to now maintained he remains in their custody. But as I mentioned that handover could come essentially moments before this execution. Suzanne?

MALVEAUX: Thank you very much, Aneesh.

HENRY: Thanks very much.

MALVEAUX: Keep us posted. HENRY: The latest from Baghdad.

Up ahead, as President Bush weighs whether to send more troops to Iraq, Pentagon planners come up with options for substantially increasing the U.S. force. We'll have some details.

MALVEAUX: Also with Saddam Hussein's execution imminent, growing concern he could prove as dangerous for Iraq in death as he was in life.

HENRY: Plus as a nation remembers former president Gerald Ford, new questions are being raised about his relationship with Richard Nixon. Stay with us, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HENRY: We're just getting word of a new bulletin from the Department of Homeland Security. I want to go right to our correspondent, Jeanne Meserve. Jeanne, what are you picking up?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This bulletin is being prepared now. It is expected to be distributed tonight. It will be distributed to state and local officials, homeland security advisers and others. Saying there's no specific or credible information suggesting than attack will occur on U.S. soil in response to the execution of Saddam Hussein.

This according to a homeland security official who says this is being issued out of an abundance of caution. And because there have been some messages picked up on Web sites indicating there would be grave consequences if Hussein is executed. And saying that the resistance would retaliate.

The official says the credibility of this has not been established. But there is no corroborating information. And so out of an abundance of caution, this advisory, this bulletin being sent out this evening to law enforcement.

MALVEAUX: Thank you very much, Jeanne. Obviously a lot of the concern about security around this time.

The Bush administration insists that the Iraqi government is in control of the plans and the process of executing of Saddam Hussein. Our White House correspondent Elaine Quijano is having technical difficulties out of Crawford, Texas, but she did report earlier that the White House is not necessarily weighing in on these incremental developments. They do not want to wade into this controversial matter. We have heard the president from even before talking about this being a victory. A time for the Iraqi people to get rid of the dictator and to see democracy evolve in their country. But we don't expect to see the president or hear from him anytime soon.

HENRY: That's right. And also the Department of State has been making clear that Saddam Hussein has still been in U.S. hands despite what some of Saddam's attorneys and others have been suggesting.

We lost Elaine Quijano because of that tornado warning that had been put in effect in Texas.

Coming up, will Saddam Hussein's death end his reign of terror in Iraq or unleash a new series of horrors? We will show you why some fear the worst.

MALVEAUX: Plus, we will talk about the impact of Saddam's pending execution, with Iraq's deputy ambassador to the United Nations. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: The body of former president Gerald Ford is now laying in his home church in Palm Desert, California. A brief private service was held for the family, with a public viewing to follow. Tomorrow the casket will be flown to Washington as the country mourns Ford's death. There's renewed focus on his relationship with his predecessor Richard Nixon. How deep was their friendship and how did it factor into Ford's Watergate pardon? CNN's Jeanne Meserve is here with some of those answers. Jeanne?

MESERVE: Suzanne, a report out suggests that the Nixon-Ford friendship was key to the pardon. But some people who knew Ford then say was not the case.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RICHARD NIXON, DECEASED FORMER PRESIDENT: I had no prior knowledge of the Watergate break-in.

MESERVE (voice-over): When Watergate began to engulf the Nixon White House, the president turned to his old friend on Capitol Hill, Gerald Ford.

GERALD FORD, DECEASED FORMER PRESIDENT: You've got a hell of a lot of friends up here, both Republican and Democrat.

NIXON: If you could get a few of the congressman and senators to speak up and say a word, for Christ's sake.

MESERVE: Before long the scandal reached Nixon himself. He resigned. Ford succeeded him. And a month later, Ford pardoned him.

FORD: A full, free and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon.

MESERVE: In a 2005 interview just made public, Ford told the "Washington Post's" Bob Woodward, he considered himself Nixon's only real friend. "I always treasured our relationship and I had no hesitancy about granting the pardon because I felt that we have this relationship and that I didn't want to see my real friend have the stigma."

Others who knew Ford say compassion may have been a factor, but a small one.

TOM DEFRANK, "NEW YORK DAILY NEWS": The notion that his intimate friendship with Richard Nixon is why he pardoned Nixon I think is a stretch.

MESERVE: Ford in Nixon both served in World War II, loved sports and shared the same political philosophy. But Nixon had personally assured Ford that he had nothing to do with Watergate. And when Oval Office tapes proved otherwise, their close friendship was over, says Ford biographer and former staffer James Cannon. Did Ford feel double crossed?

JAMES CANNON, FORD BIOGRAPHER: Yes, yes. He was dismayed, disheartened and disappointed.

MESERVE: Ford said in earlier interview, he pardoned Nixon for the good of the country, not the man.

FORD: I had to move forward and heal the wounds of Watergate.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MESERVE (on camera): Although Nixon and Ford corresponded in their later years, Cannon said Ford never initiated the contact.

Proper but distant is how he describes their relationship. Back to you.

MALVEAUX: Jeanne, a fascinating story. Thank you so much.

And of course, coming up, we'll take you live to Baghdad, where Iraqis are awaiting the word of imminent execution of Saddam Hussein. Found out what the mood is in the Iraqi capital.

HENRY: Plus we'll have details of contingency plans to beef up U.S. forces in Iraq by 20,000 U.S. troops. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: And just in, we're getting word of a tornado warning in Ft. Worth, Texas. We go directly to Bonnie Schneider out of Atlanta with the latest details.

(WEATHER REPORT)

HENRY: And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time.

MALVEAUX: Happening now, Saddam Hussein asks a U.S. court to block his execution, now believed to be just hours away. His lawyers asking the U.S. district court in Washington for a temporary stay, even as the world waits for word of Saddam's death.

HENRY: Plus, we'll talk about the impact of Saddam's pending execution with Iraq's deputy ambassador to the United Nations. He's standing by to join us right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

MALVEAUX: And we'll have details of plans to possibly increase the number of U.S. forces in Iraq by 20,000 troops. Would that help turn around the troubled U.S. mission?

I'm Suzanne Malveaux.

HENRY: And I'm Ed Henry.

Wolf Blitzer is off today. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

MALVEAUX: One lawyer says Saddam Hussein's fate is in the hands of God. More now on the top story, Saddam Hussein could be put to death at any moment.

CNN's Aneesh Raman joins us again from Baghdad with the latest.

Aneesh, what are you hearing there? What are your sources telling you? Where is Saddam Hussein? Where are we in this process?

ANEESH RAMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Suzanne, it still remains unclear as to the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein. That is important, because if he's still in U.S. custody, that final step, one of the final steps before the execution where he's handed over to Iraqi authorities hasn't happened yet.

U.S. officials up until a short time ago have confirmed that Saddam Hussein still is in their custody. But keep in mind, an appellate court judge has told CNN that that hand-over could be followed almost immediately by the execution.

We know a number of high-ranking government and court officials are standing by, as we speak, waiting for word from the office of Iraq's prime minister as to when this execution will take place.

To give you an example, just about 20 minutes ago, CNN contacted an appellate judge who expects to be a witness at this execution. When we called him, he actually thought the call was coming from the office of the prime minister.

So you get a sense of the edge that exists among the officials here. They expect this to come within the next few hours -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Aneesh, thank you so much for the details coming in.

We'll keep you posted.

HENRY: There's a lot of concern that even in death, Saddam Hussein could continue to cause serious problems in Iraq.

CNN's Brian Todd has been following and tracking that story all day.

Brian, what's the scoop?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ed, even the symbolism of Saddam's death could cause a backlash. He wanted to be executed by firing squad and not, as he termed it, by hanging as a common criminal. That potential insult to Saddam and his followers is one of many concerns over how this man may haunt Iraqis after he's gone. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice over): Even in custody, no one cut a more menacing figure. Like this time in power, Saddam Hussein's M.O. at trial was intimidation. A psychology that runs deep through his country's emotional veins, and why some experts believe Iraqi authorities wanted to execute him quickly.

The troublesome irony now, they say, is that Saddam, in death, may be more dangerous than he was alive.

HISHAM MELHEM, AL-ARABIYA: For certain, there will be a spike in the level of violence. This violence could be (INAUDIBLE) violence.

TODD: Sunnis will almost certainly attack Shias, experts say. Especially if the Shia population engages in widespread rejoicing at the death of their long-time torturer. But regardless of the Shia reaction, observers say, minority Sunnis who enjoyed privilege and power under Saddam will be pushed further into a corner.

MELHEM: This is going to be seen by the Sunnis as another insult, as another qualitative leap in the attempts of the Shia of Iraq to have a monopoly on government in Iraq at their expense.

TODD: But Shias aren't the only ones in danger. The Ba'ath Party which Saddam led has issued a statement that his execution will lead it to "... retaliate in all ways and all places that hurt America." And this comes as President Bush is about to announce a change in U.S. strategy in Iraq and a possible influx of American troops. The face of the enemy of Sunni insurgents, some allied with al Qaeda.

KEN ROBINSON, MILITARY INTELLIGENCE ANALYST: The information operations objective of the insurgency is to make it felt at home in the United States. And to do that, you need to send soldiers home in body bags. And that's pretty much what they're going to do.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Other experts point out much of the insurgency has never relied on Saddam for direction or inspiration. But this could fit their pattern of looking for any excuse to attack fellow Iraqis or Americans -- Ed, Suzanne.

HENRY: Thanks very much, Brian Todd, for that story.

MALVEAUX: And let's talk more about all these new developments regarding Saddam Hussein's imminent execution. Joining us is Feisal Istrabadi. He's Iraq's deputy ambassador to the United Nations.

Mr. Ambassador, I know you heard the interview within the hour or so earlier with one of the attorneys representing Saddam Hussein. And he was saying that there's a procedure that's going to the U.S. courts now to stay the execution. But, of course, there are other reports from The Associated Press that are indicating that the perhaps the execution of Saddam is imminent. What do you know?

AMB. FEISAL ISTRABADI, IRAQI DEP. AMB. TO THE U.N.: Well, what I can say is the situation seems to be one in tremendous flux. But you and your viewers already know that.

As of, I would say, about, let's see, close to three hours ago, my impression in speaking to Baghdad was that the execution was not imminent. But again, that was three hours ago. And imminent, you know, is in the -- is in the eye of the -- of the beholder.

If I could take a moment, I'd like to comment on some of what Mr. DiStefano says.

I appreciate a lawyer representing a client in a death penalty case and the passions that that brings to it. I was a practicing lawyer myself. I didn't represent death penalty cases when I was a lawyer, but I did when I was in law school. So I understand the passion.

But I think the idea that half of Iraq's population wants to see Saddam Hussein return to power, I mean, that's just an absurdity. This man was an equal opportunity tyrant who butchered two million of Iraq's population -- Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, Arabs, Christians, all of Iraq's 27 ethnic and sectarian groups were the subject of slaughter at the hands of Saddam Hussein.

He refers to him as a husband and father and a grandfather. He was also the father-in-law who, on his orders, had his two sons-in-law murdered brutally in 1996.

So I think what I would say, if I may, is that the focus, it seems to me, is on the wrong place. We've spent all day now talking today about Saddam Hussein. I'd like to see far more coverage about the victims of Saddam Hussein, two million Iraqis killed, millions of Iraqis sent into exile, 25 million Iraqis forced to live in what was tantamount to a maximum security prison where the caprice of a single man held sway.

These are the victims of Saddam Hussein. Iraq, an entire country, is the victim of Saddam Hussein. I'd love to see more discussion of that topic, rather than on focusing on this one man.

MALVEAUX: Mr. Ambassador, obviously there is no debate how much suffering occurred under Saddam Hussein. And as everyone reflects this execution -- impending execution, I do want to clarify, however, something that you mentioned before.

You said that you didn't get the impression three hours ago that this execution was imminent. Who didn't give you this impression? Where are you getting this from? Who are you talking to?

ISTRABADI: Well, the most I can say is that I spoke to someone in Baghdad. To a responsible official in Baghdad.

I'm not going to identify to whom I was speaking. But again, I mean, imminent is sort of in the eye of the beholder. And I'm not sure what imminent actually means. Does it mean an hour from now, or five hours from now, or seven days from now?

HENRY: Can I also press you...

ISTRABADI: But it remains to be seen.

HENRY: Can I press you on another point, which is that just a couple of hours ago, we heard also about an emergency cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his cabinet ministers trying to sort all of this out. What do you know about that cabinet meeting?

But secondly, what do you know about where Saddam Hussein is? There's confusion, is he in U.S. hands or is he in Iraqi hands?

ISTRABADI: Well, and I'm glad you raised that point, because Mr. DiStefano earlier was very, very careful in talking about physical custody because he knows that the Iraqis have had legal custody of Saddam Hussein for two years now, since the transfer -- since shortly after the transfer of authority in 2004.

The cabinet meeting, it is possible -- let me back up -- once the court -- once the appellate chamber of the court trying Saddam Hussein gave a final ruling, a final judgment upholding the death sentence, it became a matter for the executive authority in Iraq to set a date and time for his execution. It is possible that if, in fact, a cabinet meeting occurred, because in the Iraqi system the Iraqi cabinet, or the council of ministers, is or embodies the executive authority, it is possible.

And I don't know that there was a cabinet meeting. But if there was one, it is possible that it could be related to the setting of a date and time of the execution.

HENRY: OK.

ISTRABADI: Because as I said, it is the Iraqi cabinet or the council of ministers which is responsible at that point.

HENRY: OK.

MALVEAUX: The bottom line, you do not know whether or not Saddam Hussein has been transferred to the Iraqi government's hands at this point?

ISTRABADI: Well, again, my response to you is that Saddam Hussein -- the legal custody of Saddam Hussein was transferred to the Iraqi government two years ago.

HENRY: OK.

ISTRABADI: And that's where I'll leave the matter.

HENRY: OK. Mr. Ambassador, last question. You have 30 seconds.

Tell us what preparations the Iraqi government, since you're a part of it, has gone through to prepare for the possibility of this unleashing more violence. How prepared is the Iraqi government?

ISTRABADI: Look, on the issue of violence, we have had a process now over two years of a political process. And at every milestone, whether it's the elections, whether it's a referendum on the constitution, whether it's the appointment of a new cabinet, we have had violence.

We can predict that there will be violence here. But the supporters of Saddam Hussein, those few supporters of Saddam Hussein who, nevertheless, can cause a lot of chaos, I understand, would have used his imprisonment as excuse. They've used his trial as an excuse.

There may we will be a spike in violence. That's just something that we will be dealing with. And I know that there are contingency plans for that.

HENRY: OK. We'll have to leave it right there.

Thank you for joining us, Mr. Ambassador.

ISTRABADI: Thank you.

HENRY: We want to go right back to Baghdad. Our correspondent there, Aneesh Raman, has some new information.

Aneesh, what do you have?

RAMAN: Well, Ed, we've heard again from that judge in the appellate chamber, Munir Hadad (ph), who has, by the way, called what is taking place in the U.S. at the lead of the Saddam's defense attorneys rubbish. He says it will not affect at all the proceedings that are under way.

He has confirmed as well that the red card you spoke of earlier that was given by Saddam's regime to those about to be executed is part of the docket ready to go. On it, the Justice Ministry has signed it and condemned Saddam Hussein to death.

Everyone within the government and the court officials are on edge. They are waiting essentially for word from the prime minister's office as to when this execution will take place.

As I mentioned earlier, when we called this judge, he thought that was the call, that it was announcing the time. So everyone is -- you get the sense -- there's an impending feel that that this execution is coming very soon -- Ed.

HENRY: Thanks.

MALVEAUX: Aneesh, thank you so much. And if you have further details, we'll get back to you on all of this developing story.

And, of course, up ahead, Iraq options and military advice. We've learned that the U.S. military has prepared a plan to increase the number of troops in Iraq. Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, is standing by. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HENRY: We're just getting word of the deaths of three more U.S. Marines in Iraq. Some grim statistics for the month of December.

Let's go right to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She has the story -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, grim statistics, indeed. The announcement of the death of these three Marines in Al Anbar Province now brings the death toll for the month of December to 106. That is the same death toll for the month of October, which until now, of course, was the deadliest month of the year. This month is not over. And it is, perhaps, this that U.S. troops are thinking about rather than Saddam Hussein.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice over): U.S. military commanders have developed an option to increase troops in Iraq by 20,000, but it requires some combat units to extend their tours on the frontline and other units might have to cut training short in order to deploy more quickly. Military officials emphasize this is just an option.

President Bush has yet to make a decision about whether to increase troop levels. There may also be incentives to put young men to work and reopen Iraqi industries and businesses.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The key to success in Iraq is to have a government that's willing to deal with the elements there that are trying to prevent this young democracy from succeeding.

STARR: One military official said there is a proposed course of action. Two Marine Corps regiments scheduled to leave Iraq in February would remain. Marines serve seven-month tours, unlike the Army, which deploys for one year. Army brigades scheduled to go to Iraq in the spring may go more quickly, rather than extending Army units already on the ground. An 82nd Airborne Division brigade already scheduled to go to Kuwait would move into Iraq.

These moves would result in an increase of up two 20,000 combat forces. There are about 134,000 troops in Iraq now. Senior commanders are concerned such a major disruption in the rotation schedule will only strain the force further. And fundamentally, many say, more troops may not improve security in Baghdad and Al Anbar Province without significant progress by the Iraqi government.

MAJ. GEN. WILLIAM CALDWELL, SPOKESMAN, MULTINATIONAL FORCE, IRAQ: Significant challenges do remain. And violence is likely to remain at unacceptably high levels in the very near term.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: Military commanders emphasize all of this is just a proposed course of action. Of course, the president has yet to make his decisions public.

MALVEAUX: Barbara, thank you very much. Indeed, disappointing news.

And, of course, we have been reporting The Associated Press citing an Iraqi official saying that Saddam Hussein will be executed before 6:00 a.m. in the morning Baghdad time. That would be 10:00 Eastern Time. This coming from an Iraqi official from The Associated Press.

We're keeping a very close eye on what the latest developments are and the timing of Saddam Hussein's execution.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: It is almost 2:00 in the morning Baghdad time. And, of course, there are reports, one from The Associated Press, saying that Saddam Hussein's execution could happen as early as before 6:00 a.m. Saturday. We are just hours away from that execution, if, in fact, that is true.

Now, joining us, of course, in Atlanta, senior editor of Arab Affairs, Octavia Nasr.

Explain to us the timing of this. Does this make any sense at all? Why would there be this window?

OCTAVIA NASR, CNN SR. EDITOR, ARAB AFFAIRS: Very -- actually, it makes a lot of sense for people who are involved. Saturday morning marks the beginning of a very important holiday in the Muslim calendar, Eid, the Feast of Sacrifice. As a matter of fact, at daybreak, at sunrise, is when Muslims around the world will celebrate that very important feast.

There were very harsh criticisms of this decision to execute Saddam Hussein on such an important holiday. So it seems that after consultations, the Iraqi government decided to -- if, indeed, it is going to carry out this execution, it will carry it out before 6:00 a.m. That means before daybreak, before the actual celebration of Eid begins.

MALVEAUX: So if it doesn't happen before 6:00 a.m., then what is the next logical window where they would decide to execute Saddam Hussein?

NASR: You know, Eid in the Middle East lasts four days. So if it begins tomorrow, you have to count four days after Saturday.

Also, you add one more day, because there's a discrepancy between the Shiites and Sunni celebration of Eid. Shiites will commence the celebration on Sunday, instead of Saturday.

So it will take a few days, if, indeed, they want to wait until after the holiday. In the beginning, it sounded like that was not an issue for the Iraqi government. But at this point, if indeed, they're thinking about, you know, the execution taking place before 6:00 a.m., that means they're taking that into in effect. That means the next logical date would be around the 5th or 6th of January.

MALVEAUX: Octavia Nasr, thank you so much for making sense of all this confusion this afternoon.

Thanks again.

NASR: Any time.

HENRY: Quite fascinating. We're trying to cover every single angle of this story, including the story online with our Internet reporter, Jacki Schechner. She's also following the impending execution of Saddam Hussein.

What are you picking up, Jacki?

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Well, Ed, we heard a little bit earlier from Jeanne Meserve that the Department of Homeland Security was issuing bulletins to state and law enforcement officials, just warning them to keep an eye out in case of Saddam Hussein's execution. They said they made the statement out of abundance of caution, that there was no specific or credible threat. That's very important.

But, however, they said there were Web sites that suggested there might be grave consequences if Saddam Hussein was executed. And we wanted to point this out to you.

This is not specifically, necessarily the Web sites that they're talking about. But this message did go online a little bit earlier this week. Not necessarily, again, the same statement that the Department of Homeland Security is referring to, but it's a statement by Saddam's Ba'athist Party posted online, and it threatens that there's going to be retribution in case Saddam Hussein is executed.

It responds with threats, such things as they would respond "... with all means, wherever it hurts America the most and its interests," if the U.S. decides to carry out the crime, as they describe it, of executing Saddam Hussein.

So the Ba'athist Party, Saddam's Ba'athist Party, using the Internet to send a warning to the U.S. government that it would basically react in retribution if Saddam Hussein were executed. But again, this is not necessarily the Web posting that the Department of Homeland Security is referring to -- Ed, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Fascinating developments.

Thank you, Jacki.

And, of course, up next, a new terror tape from al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden's top deputy.

HENRY: We'll have details of his latest message to Americans.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Carol Lin now joins us with a closer look at the other stories that are making news.

Carol, what do you have?

CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Suzanne.

Let's start with Somalia's prime minister, who formally took control of the country's capital today. And that sparked celebrations in some neighborhoods, violent protests in others.

The prime minister was ushered into Mogadishu by Ethiopian-backed troops a day after Islamic fighters fled the city. Somalia is in the grips of a civil war and is wracked by clan violence. Now, just in the past week, government troops, backed by Ethiopian soldiers, have overrun Islamic fighters across much of the country.

And al Qaeda is addressing Muslims during one of the holiest periods of the Islamic year. Just hours ago, the group released an audiotape from its second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri. And in the tape he refers to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and condemns the government of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas.

It is the ninth tape from al Qaeda just in the past six months and coincides with the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca.

Now, Muslim pilgrims prayed at Mount Arafat today in the first major ritual of the five-day Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. More than two million flooded into a sprawling tent city there outside the holy city of Mecca. The Prophet Mohammed is said to have delivered his final sermon at Mount Arafat in the year 632.

That's it from here -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Carol Lin, thank you so much for all the other stories that are making news.

And, of course, we have been covering the Saddam Hussein execution watch. A lot of different moving parts here. The Associated Press...

HENRY: Pieces from everywhere. Aneesh Raman on the ground in Baghdad bringing us parts of the story. Elaine Quijano, in Texas.

Will be back at 7:00 p.m. Eastern Time. We're going to have one of Saddam Hussein's attorneys back.

You're not going to want to miss it.

I'm Ed Henry.

MALVEAUX: I'm Suzanne Malveaux.

"LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" is up next -- Christine Romans.

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