LONDON – In his first Western television interview in more than a decade, Saddam Hussein said the United States wants to conquer Iraq so it can "control the world" and insisted his regime does not have weapons of mass destruction.
A retired British lawmaker and peace activist, Tony Benn, conducted the 40-minute interview, in which the Iraqi leader spoke slowly in precise, careful tones, his voice at times falling very low, as he sipped from a cup of Arabic coffee in what appeared to be a room in one of his palaces.
The interview took place Sunday in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, and was broadcast Tuesday, one day before Secretary of State Colin Powell was to present evidence at the U.N. Security Council that Iraq has hidden large caches of banned weapons.
Saddam, speaking in Arabic, accused Washington of fabricating false claims as a pretext to seize Iraq's oil fields. He also said Iraq does not want war and is willing to work with U.N. weapons inspectors if they have no ulterior purpose.
"If the intention [of inspections] is to confirm that Iraq is free of biological and chemical and nuclear weapons, then they can do so. These weapons are not some aspirin pill someone can hide in his pocket. These are weapons of mass destruction, so it's simple to determine if Iraq has them or not," he said.
But chief weapons inspector Hans Blix said in New York on Tuesday that the Iraqi government's response so far hasn't indicated it is prepared to provide the critical information that he and nuclear inspection chief Mohamed ElBaradei want to see ahead of their Feb. 14 report to the Security Council.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Saddam's "track record on telling the truth is not good at all."
"Given the fact that he has biological and chemical weapons, clearly what he said today is continual denial of the truth," Fleischer said Tuesday.
Saddam wore a dark suit in the interview, sitting across a table from Benn in a gilded chair in front of a curtain and a white, black and red Iraqi flag with three green stars. Occasionally he turned a pen in his hands, lining it up precisely on a green book on the table before him.
Analysts who have watched Saddam for years said he showed no sign of strain, despite the current confrontation with Washington.
Despite President Bush's claims that Iraq has links with Al Qaeda, Saddam insisted his regime has none.
"If we had a relationship with Al Qaeda, and we believed in that relationship, we wouldn't be ashamed to admit it," he told Benn, who traveled to Baghdad in a bid to stop a war.
An Iraqi TV cameraman filmed Sunday's interview, which Benn conducted for a new television network called Arab Television, a yet-to-be-launched Arab TV station with administrative offices in London.
Saddam has not given an interview to a foreign television journalist in 12 years, according to Benn, who said during the interview that Saddam had declined his offer to see the questions beforehand.
Saddam gave several interviews during the Gulf War in early 1991.
In one famous encounter, he spoke in a bungalow in Baghdad with Peter Arnett, a TV correspondent in Iraq. Arnett quoted Saddam as saying he could not predict how long the war would last but promised "lots of blood will be shed on every side" and said he was confident Iraq would prevail. Iraq was routed in that war, which started after it invaded neighboring Kuwait.
During the interview broadcast Tuesday, Saddam claimed that Washington was intent on seizing Iraq's oil fields so that it could exert a stranglehold on the rest of the world and dictate to other powers, including China, Russia, Germany, France and Japan. He said Israel was inspiring U.S. hostility to Iraq.
"If you want to control the world, you must control oil, and one of the most important requirements for controlling oil is to destroy Iraq," he said. "One of the main reasons for the aggression that the American administration is engaged in is to control the world."
Saddam said Iraq was ready to work with the weapons inspectors to avoid war.
"It is in our interest to help their mission to reach the truth. But the question is, does the other party want to find the truth or does it want to use any issue or comment as a pretext for aggression," he said.
The U.N. inspections resumed in November after a four-year gap. During the 1990s, previous U.N. teams oversaw destruction of the great bulk of banned weapons and their production programs in Iraq, under U.N. resolutions adopted after Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Gulf War.
Saddam said no nation including the United States could tell the world what to do. "If this person chooses to stay on this planet and ignore the rest of the world, then the least we can say is that this person is lacking in wisdom," he added.
Powell's public presentation Wednesday to the U.N. Security Council will be the centerpiece of a strenuous campaign to enlist support for war from Russia, France and other skeptical governments as well as from the American public.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair failed in a fresh attempt Tuesday to persuade a reluctant France to join a U.S.-led coalition ready to move against Saddam if necessary.
Benn, 77, has long been one of Britain's highest-profile politicians, famous for his extreme positions and powerful rhetoric. He first visited Saddam in Baghdad in 1991 when he was an outspoken opponent of the Gulf War.
A former Labor Party legislator and veteran socialist, Benn has criticized Blair and his New Labor Party for being too centrist and for continuing Margaret Thatcher policies that unions criticize, such privatization and deregulation.
Benn has been strongly critical of Blair's calls for tough action against Iraq.
That position was clear in the way Benn began his interview with Saddam on Sunday.
"I come for one reason only, to see whether in a talk we can explore, or you can help me to see, what the paths to peace may be," Benn said. "There are millions of people all over the world who don't want a war."