Saddam Speaks

Iraqi Leader Insists No Banned Weapons

Saddam Hussein hadn't given an interview to a Westerner in 12 years - until Sunday, that is, when he sat down in a Presidential Palace in Baghdad with a British anti-war activist, who asked Saddam sympathetic questions.

Still, the Iraqi leader's answers were revealing, in what he said, how he said it and what he didn't say. Bob Simon takes a close look.

The Saddam Hussein facing war with the West today seems very much like the Saddam Hussein who faced western armies in 1990: Calm, poised and confident.

He wants to tell you a story, and he wants to tell it his way. It is a story that you might not expect to hear from a man who is sitting squarely in the crosshairs of America's military might.

"The Iraqis don't wish for war to happen, but if war is imposed upon them, if they are attacked and insulted, they will defend themselves, they will defend their country, their sovereignty, and their security," he said.

That was a message Tony Benn came a long way to hear. Saddam invited the retired British Labor Party politician to Baghdad to conduct this rare interview, to deliver his message directly to the people of the west.

"Mr. President, may I ask you some questions? The first question, does Iraq possess weapons of mass destruction?" Benn asked him.

"I tell you, as I have said on many occasions before, that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq whatsoever. And we challenge those who say the opposite to give the simplest proof. These weapons are not aspirin pills that one can hide in his pocket," Hussein replied.

To help make sense of Saddam's answers, 60 Minutes II asked Fouad Ajami, professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and a CBS News consultant, to look at the interview. He said that if Tony Benn got the scoop of the year, it's no accident that Saddam chose him to do the interview.

"Well part of the charm of Saddam Hussein if you will, in a very perverse way, is this attempt to sound like a reasonable man. Saddam is in this awkward position that he is guilty until proven innocent, and he can't really prove his own innocence. So he gets this softball question: Do you have weapons of mass destruction?' he says you can't hide them, but in fact we do know he can hide them.

But Saddam told Benn that the American objectives aren't hidden, they are there for all to see.

"If the American administration controls the oil in the Middle East, they would be able to control the world," Hussein said. "It seems to me that the hostility that characterizes the current U.S. administration is based on its wish to control the world and spread its hegemony."

There are a lot of people in the peace camp in Europe, Russia and Japan who agree w/ every word that Saddam just said," Simon said to Ajami.

"Saddam watches television. He knows, he can see that there are people carrying banners saying 'No blood for oil.'" Ajami said.

Saddam is making that argument in a reasoned, lawyerly manner. He doesn't come across as a man with tens of thousands of American warriors camped on his borders, preparing to demolish him and his regime.

Was there anything in his attitude, in Hussein's body language, his voice, that is different than what it used to be?

"No, I think he still had this absolutely Mr. Reasonable Man image. And it's part of this mystique, which is to do the most audacious things, and yet pretend they simply are very normal," Ajami said.

"Do you think he doesn't realize that the Americans are coming after him no matter what he does or says? No matter which British lefties he invites to Baghdad?" Simon asked Ajami.

"I think this man still believes that he could probably just plea bargain his way out of trouble, and dodge another bullet. He may think that this peace camp in the world may prevent the onset of war," Ajami says.

And that is the core of Saddam's charm offensive, that he and the Iraqi people have pitched their tents right in the middle of the global peace camp.

"No Iraqi official, or ordinary citizen has expressed a wish to go to war. The question then, should be asked of the others: are they looking for a pretext so they can say they have reached what justifies their declaration of war against Iraq?" Hussein told Benn.

Said Ajami: "He basically sees that the inspections are a prelude to war; that these inspectors came in order to give the Bush administration a pretext to go to war."

And if, or when, that war comes, Saddam had one more message for Benn to carry home:

"Please tell the British people if the Iraqis are subjected to aggression or humiliation, they would fight bravely and steadily, just as the British people fought in the Second World War to defend their country."

"He sure knows which British button to push, doesn't he?" Simon said.

Said Ajami: "Well, not only that, I mean 12 years ago it was the 'Mother of All Battles' and the message here is street warfare, urban warfare."

Will the Iraqis fight? "My own judgment is that the people of Iraq will not fight for Saddam Hussein,' says Ajami. "And it's just my own guess that were we to enter Baghdad, when the time comes to do so, it will be exactly a repeat of what happened in Kabul when the Americans came into Afghanistan and were greeted by kites and music and boom-boxes and people were glad to get rid of the Taliban."

The interview is vintage Saddam: His persona, his attitude, his message. What makes it interesting is the fact that it's the first one he's given in such a long time and that, quite possibly, it could be his last.