Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld:

“I’m here to announce a breakthrough in our effort to let Iraqis take responsibility for their security and freedom. Under our plan for democracy in Iraq, we will hand over sovereignty on June 30. Up to now, the only piece missing in our strategy has been the cornerstone–a reliable leader to whom we can make the handoff. Some of you in the media enjoy snickering that I represent an administration that has learned nothing from history. This couldn’t be further from the truth. One of the things we’ve learned is that the kind of democracy we’re determined to introduce in Iraq requires a strong leader deeply rooted in his country’s political traditions. We’ve been searching for such a man.

“As you know, we’ve already promoted an Iraqi major general who was once a divisional chief of staff in the Republican Guard to head the Fallujah Protective Force so we could get our troops out of that hellhole. This strategy–relying on officials from the old regime to win over insurgents financed by officials of the old regime–proved surprisingly successful. We decided to search for a similar figure to run the country, under the careful oversight of a covert unit in my office.

“We’ve found our man. He’s the only Iraqi with the right mix of charm and Baghdad clout, a man from the Sunni side of the Arab street who can talk Shiite when he needs to. He represents a solution that respects both Iraqi political aspirations and our need for a stable, oil-producing Iraq. Tested by war, deepened by tragedy, I’m proud to announce the new Iraqi leader, someone with a promising future in his troubled country. I don’t think I exaggerate in calling him the face of the new Iraq–Mr. Saddam Hussein.

“We anticipated that objections would be raised–by Democrats, journalists, the French, and other peacemongers. It may be futile to address this ‘traitors’ chorus,’ but I’m going to outline the reasons we believe Mr. Hussein is the only man for the job.

“First, I want to emphasize the extraordinary nature of our vetting procedures with Mr. Hussein. He has been plagued for more than a decade by allegations that he was developing weapons of mass destruction and supporting terrorist activities, allegations brought forward by the previous Democratic administration. To determine the truth, we launched one of the most expensive background checks in history, sending in more than 130,000 brave men and women to uncover the truth. Did they find a shred of evidence against Mr. Hussein? I don’t have to tell our liberal critics the answer to that question, do I?

“We were able to confirm that Mr. Hussein is not now, and never has been, a soldier in the Iraqi Republican Guard. Likewise to the question of Mr. Hussein’s past involvement with the outlawed Baath Party, I can reassure you that he assisted our efforts at de-Baathification, and he is now assisting in the new policy of un-de-Baathification, and he has pledged to serve any future policy of re-un-de-Baathification.

“Mr. Hussein has been extremely cooperative in the six months since we took him into protective custody. Some of you in the press misquoted me saying we ‘captured’ him in a ‘spider hole,’ terms I challenge you to prove I used. In fact, we rescued him from an underground bunker very similar to Vice President Cheney’s residence in an undisclosed location. Sometimes I think I need a place like that, but I digress.

“I have recognized Saddam’s willingness to work with the United States for many years. In 1983, when I went to Baghdad as President Reagan’s special envoy to Mr. Hussein, I looked him in the eye and we forged a bond of mutual understanding. But don’t take my word for it. Talk to my colleagues in the administration. Saddam Hussein has a proven track record in working with the United States.

“The clinching point in Mr. Hussein’s favor is the role he can play in rallying Iraqi public opinion against increasingly strident Islamic jihadists. As you know, we continually adjust this policy, sensitive to changing politics on the ground in Iraq. Initially, we built a strong foundation for Ahmed Chalabi against extremists like Ayatollah al-Sistani. Later, we made al-Sistani our rock in the roiling tide of angry young mullahs like Moktada al-Sadr. Under present circumstances, we think Mr. Hussein’s solid relationship with respectable Muslims like al-Sadr–whom I describe as moderately insane but treatable with the right mix of therapy and prescription drugs and therefore a man we can work with as soon as he stops killing Americans–can only weaken the position of the stark raving mad clerics who are beginning to outflank him.

“Finally, I can say to you that we’ve come to this decision after a painstaking process in which we carefully tested and excluded other options. I believe that no American administration before has been so diligent in eliminating viable options. Cynics say our motto is ‘Never admit a mistake or acknowledge a problem.’ In truth, our motto is, ‘Until every stone is turned and every option tested, we will never call retreat.’

“I compare our efforts to those of a chess grandmaster strategically losing pieces while probing for weak spots in his opponent’s defense. I can honestly tell you that we’ve lost those pieces strategically, or rather that we’ve found our opponent’s weakness and that weakness is now our strength, a man I first called friend 20 years ago and the face of the new Iraq we’ve nobly built. Unless it’s actually one of his doubles, I have the great pleasure of introducing the next president of Iraq.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Chalkley.