Saddam tried to make peace on war's eve: Former Official

LAST-DITCH EFFORT: On the eve of war the Iraqi dictator offered huge concessions to the US but the Bush administration would not let him stay in power


Sunday, Nov 09, 2003,Page 1

Saddam Hussein personally initiated an attempt to reach a last-minute deal with Washington to avoid the US-led invasion that ousted his regime, a former Iraqi government official said.

The official, who spoke to The Associated Press on Friday on condition of anonymity, said Iraqi officials had Saddam's "full consent" when they approached the US with the deal, offering oil contracts for US companies and open access for UN weapons inspectors.

The aide was not part of the national leadership, but his job provided him daily contact with the dictator and insight into the regime's decision-making process during the past decade and its critical final days.

The former aide's comments to the AP came a day after a Lebanese-American businessman, Imad Hage, confirmed the last-minute offer and said he was the go-between for the Iraqis in approaching the Bush administration.

Hage said the deal fell through because the Iraqis refused to comply with a US demand that Saddam step down.

He said that in the 2 1/2 months before US-led forces invaded Iraq on March 20, he had six meetings with the then-head of Iraqi intelligence foreign operations, Hassan al-Obeidi, and the director of Iraqi intelligence, Tahir Jalil Haboush, and had passed on details of his discussions to contacts at the Pentagon.

Asked in the interview Thursday whether the Iraqi officials were acting for Saddam or on their own, he replied: "Given my understanding and everybody's understanding of Iraq, I don't think a person of the caliber of Dr. al-Obeidi could come to Lebanon without the knowledge of his higher-ups."

It was impossible to immediately confirm the statement from the aide about Saddam's involvement. Most of Saddam's cronies from the Baath Party leadership have either been captured and are being held incommunicado, or are hiding inside or outside Iraq.

In Washington, a senior US intelligence official said Thursday that during the run-up to the war, a wide variety of people sent signals -- via foreign intelligence services, other governments and third parties -- that some Iraqis might want to negotiate.

All leads that were "plausible and even some that weren't" were followed up, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. But no one offering a deal was in a position to make an acceptable one, the official said.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan declined to say whether the purported Iraqi effort to avert the war was brought to US President George W. Bush's attention.

US State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said: "We never received any legitimate or credible opportunity to resolve the world's differences with Iraq in a peaceful manner.

"What we did see were vague overtures through third parties that appeared to be focused on attempts to forestall military action."

And while the ex-Saddam aide said the dictator had approved the overture to the Americans, it remained unclear whether Saddam was sincere.

"There have been indications about these Iraqi concessions (for oil contracts and freer access to search for weapons of mass destruction) but until now there has been no proof that they existed," said Wahed Abdel Maged, deputy head of the Ahram Center for Strategic Studies in Cairo.

"But there has never been any hint that the concessions ever included Saddam leaving power, and I believe that this is the main reason why they were not accepted," he said. "The minimum the Americans wanted was for him to leave. They were not interested in any other concessions."

Hage said his initial contact with the US government was another Lebanese American, Mike Maloof, an analyst in the office of Douglas Feith, the US undersecretary of defense for policy and planning.