President Saddam Hussein of Iraq denied in an interview broadcast today that he had any connection to the al Qaeda terrorist network or that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction.
He suggested that the United States was seeking a "pretext for aggression" so as to take control of Iraq's oil.
"If we had a relationship with al Qaeda, and we believed in that relationship, we wouldn't be ashamed to admit it," Hussein said, in his first televised interview since the Iraq crisis began. "Therefore I would like to tell you directly and also through you to anyone who is interested to know that we have no relationship with al Qaeda."
Hussein said he was prepared to cooperate to avoid a conflict. "When Iraq objects to the conduct of those implementing the Security Council resolutions, that doesn't mean that Iraq wishes to push things to confrontation," the Iraqi leader said. "Iraq has no interest in war. No Iraqi official or ordinary citizen has expressed a wish to go to war.
"The question should be directed at the other side: Are they looking for a pretext so they could justify war against Iraq? If the purpose was to make sure that Iraq is free of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, then they can do that. These weapons do not come in small pills that you can hide in your pocket, and it is easy to work out if Iraq has them or not. We have said many times before, and we say it again today, that Iraq is free of such weapons."
The 30-minute videotaped interview, broadcast here this evening on Channel 4 television, was conducted by Tony Benn, a left-wing British politician who retired as a member of the House of Commons. The interview will be broadcast Wednesday night on CBS. Benn said he went to Baghdad in a last-ditch effort to prevent war between the West and Iraq. Hussein spoke to Benn in Arabic, through an interpreter.
Hussein dismissed as "small details" complaints by Hans Blix, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, that Iraq has failed so far to cooperate adequately with the U.N. team.
"Every fair-minded person knows that as far as Resolution 1441 is concerned, the Iraqis have been fulfilling their obligations under the resolution," he told Benn. "So when Iraq objects to the conduct of the inspection teams or others, that doesn't mean that Iraq is interested in putting obstacles before them. . . . It is in our interest to facilitate their mission to find the truth. The question is, does the other side want to get to the same conclusion or are they looking for a pretext for aggression?"
When Benn asked if the conflict was about oil, Hussein was quick to say yes and to blame Israel -- which he referred to as "the Zionist entity" -- as a factor in U.S. hostility. "The first factor is the role of those influential people in the decision taken by the president of the United States based on sympathy with the Zionist entity that was created at the expense of Palestine and its people and their humanity," he said.
"These people," said Hussein, referring to Israel and its supporters, "and others have been telling the various U.S. administrations, especially the current one, that if you want to control the world you need to control the oil. Therefore the destruction of Iraq is a prerequisite to controlling oil."
Hussein, wearing a dark gray suit, appeared relaxed and at times even jocular. "Make sure I look smart," he told the camera crew with a smile as the session began.
The Iraqi leader, who rarely makes public appearances, sat in an ornate, gilt armchair with an Iraqi flag to his right. Although he said in the interview he had not seen the questions in advance, his responses seemed well-rehearsed, and he spoke deliberately.
At one point, Hussein praised the sophistication and credibility of his government. "Most Iraqi officials have been in power for over 34 years and have experience of dealing with the outside world," he said. "Every fair-minded person knows that when Iraqi officials say something, they are trustworthy."
Afterward, Benn said he had not asked the Iraqi leader about his use of chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians and Iranian soldiers in the 1980s because he wanted to focus on the current crisis. The interview "confirmed to me, in my view, we must work to stop the war," he told a Channel 4 interviewer. "I went there to counter the war propaganda that's being pumped out by the British and American governments and all the media."