Byline: PAUL GILFEATHER in Baghdad and GARY JONES
SADDAM Hussein has told Tony Benn in an extraordinary face-to-face TV interview that Iraq has NO weapons of mass destruction and NO links to al-Qaeda.
Looking clearly edgy the tyrant denied hindering UN weapons inspectors, saying it was in Iraq's interest to help them.
But he suggested he was resigned to war, accusing the US of seeking a pretext to destroy Iraq so it could secure oil supplies as part of its "wish to control the world".
Mr Benn, who met Saddam before the 1991 Gulf War, travelled to Baghdad hoping he could help avert conflict with the US and Britain.
Sitting in one of his palaces in Baghdad, Saddam told the peace campaigner and former Labour MP: "As I have said on many occasions, Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction whatsoever.
"These weapons do not come in small pills that you can hide in your pocket. It's easy to work out if Iraq has them or not."
To Mr Benn's question "Do you have links with al-Qaeda?", he replied: "If we had a relationship with al-Qaeda, and we believed in that relationship, we wouldn't be ashamed to admit it.
"Therefore, I would like to tell you directly that we have no relationship with al-Qaeda."
The two-hour interview, filmed on Sunday, was conducted for new TV station Arab television and broadcast yesterday.
Leaning back in a gold chair and gesturing, Saddam - who refused to read a set of prepared questions - said: "It is in our interest to facilitate their (UN weapons inspectors) 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?"
In a reference to a UN call on Iraq to disarm WMD or face "serious consequences," he added: "The superpowers can create a pretext any day to claim that Iraq is not implementing Resolution 1441."
Mr Benn asked Baghdad for the interview in September and was granted permission two weeks ago.
Saddam greeted him by shaking his hand, then holding it for several seconds before putting his other hand on top.
Wearing an immaculate black suit and white shirt, he spoke slowly in lengthy Arab monologues.
At one point, he sipped coffee, holding the back of his hand underneath the cup to prevent drips. At other times, he fiddled with a pen, lining it up with a book.
Mr Benn, obviously feeling the pressure, sat hunched forward throughout the interview. His trademark pipe lay untouched in an ashtray at his side.
This is an edited transcript:
BENN: I am here for only one reason - to see whether in a talk we can explore, and you can help me, what the paths to peace may be.
I remember the war. I lost a brother. I never want to see another war. There are millions of people all over the world who do not want a war and by agreeing to this interview I hope you will be able to say something which will be positive.
SADDAM: Welcome to Baghdad. You are aware of the role Iraqis have prepared for themselves, inspired by their own civilisation and their role in human history.
This role requires peace to prosper and progress. Having said that, the Iraqis are committed to their rights as much as they are committed to the rights of others.
Every fair-minded person knows that when Iraqi officials say something they are trustworthy.
When you asked me if I wanted to look at questions beforehand, I told you I didn't feel the need. I gave you the freedom to ask me any question so my reply would be direct.
This is an opportunity to reach the British people and the forces of peace in the world. I have said before Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction whatsoever. We challenge anyone who claims that we have, to bring forward any evidence and present it.
BENN: I have another question which has been raised. …