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Sunday, 2 February, 2003, 19:22 GMT
Saddam 'optimistic' about avoiding war
Tony Benn
Tony Benn leaving a press conference in Baghdad
Saddam Hussein is "optimistic" about the chances of avoiding a war, according to former UK MP Tony Benn.

Mr Benn, an ex-Labour cabinet minister and fervent anti-war activist, met the Iraqi leader during a fact-finding mission to Baghdad.

Saddam Hussein
Saddam does not meet with journalists

Mr Benn informed Prime Minister Tony Blair of the trip and saw it as an opportunity to "explore" alternatives to military conflict.

Although he would not reveal details from his "interview" with Saddam Hussein, Mr Benn said it had been filmed and would be available to any television station which pledged to show it in its entirety.

Mr Benn stressed he had not come to Baghdad as a guest of the Iraqi regime, but had paid for all his own expenses.

Final intervention

Before he left on the trip, he said: "All my good friends are telling me I'll be ripped apart and called a stooge of the Iraqis, but I would never forgive myself for not trying to bring back something that could stop this war."

"I feel I have to go because a lot of people in the world would like to know if there is an alternative to war and that is what I am exploring.

"I shall ask relevant questions.

"It is not going to be like a Paxman or Robin Day interview. It is to ask questions and to see what he says."

Mr Benn's intervention comes as UN weapons inspectors ratchet up the pressure on Iraq, during their search for weapons of mass destruction.

Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei will return to Baghdad for talks on 8 February, but are insisting on greater co-operation from Iraq on issues including surveillance flights and interviews with scientists.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell is to address the UN's Security Council on Wednesday with evidence of Iraqi non-compliance.

American President George Bush, meanwhile, is talking of "weeks" not months before a decision on military action is taken.


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