BAGHDAD, Iraq – An Iraqi biologist who granted an unprecedented private interview to U.N. weapons inspectors said Friday he agreed to talk of his own free will, hoping to rob the United States of a "pretext" to attack Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein.
The interview with Sinan Abdel-Hassan -- the first scientist to be questioned without another Iraqi present -- has been described as a sign of hope by top U.N. weapons inspectors, who have been pressing Iraq to improve its cooperation with arms monitors to reduce chances of attack by the United States and Britain.
"I decided to volunteer for the interview because of my love for my country, my people and my leader," Abdel-Hassan told Associated Press Television News. "I don't want the United States or Britain to have a pretext to attack Iraq."
The Iraqi Foreign Ministry said three other scientists gave 2-to-3-hour private interviews late Friday, but the U.N. did not immediately confirm that.
Abdel-Hassan, who once worked in Iraq's biological weapons program, said the inspectors did not allow him to record the 3-hour interview, which touched on past weapons programs that Iraq claims it has dismantled.
In Washington, the White House downplayed the importance of the session, noting that Abdel-Hassan works for the Iraqi monitoring directorate, which is responsible for dealing with inspectors.
"The only one they're interviewing without a minder is a minder," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
The inspectors have been trying for weeks to speak -- in private -- with Iraqi scientists linked to Iraq's banned weapons programs. The arms monitors believed that the experts would be more forthright without an Iraqi official present in the security-conscious country.
The scientists and experts had refused to attend such meetings, saying they feared their words would be twisted by outside interests. U.S. officials said the scientists were threatened with death if they agreed to be interviewed alone, though Abdel-Hassan denied that in the interview with APTN.
"To the contrary," Abdel-Hasan said. "Iraq is the only Arab nation that looks after science and scientists."
Abdel-Hassan said he was encouraged to grant the interview by the chief Iraqi liaison with the U.N. inspection teams, Maj. Gen. Hossam Mohammed Amin, who is also Abdel Hassan's boss at the National Monitoring Directorate.
Nevertheless, Abdel-Hassan said he made the decision to talk on his own. He was influenced in part, he said, by an increase in "America's threats against my nation."
He offered few details of the discussion, which was conducted in the early evening Thursday at the Bourj al-Hayat hotel in Baghdad, where many of the inspectors reside. U.N. officials have also declined to offer specifics.