Saddam's desperate offers to stave off war
Washington dismissed Iraq's peace feelers, including elections and weapons pledge, put forward via diplomatic channels and US hawk Perle
Julian Borger in Washington, Brian Whitaker and Vikram Dodd
Friday November 7, 2003
In the few weeks before its fall, Iraq's Ba'athist regime made a series of increasingly desperate peace offers to Washington, promising to hold elections and even to allow US troops to search for banned weapons. But the advances were all rejected by the Bush administration, according to intermediaries involved in the talks.
As US and British troops massed in the Gulf, Iraqi intelligence sent out a range of compromise feelers through a number of channels in the apparent hope of forestalling the invasion or at least buying time.
The messages were sent through Syrian intelligence, and French, German and Russian diplomatic channels, and as the countdown to invasion ticked away, through retired CIA officials and a Lebanese-American businessman who met the Washington hawk, Richard Perle, in a London hotel.
The first approach appears to have been made last December through the CIA's former head of counter-terrorism, Vincent Cannistraro.
"I was approached by someone representing Tahir al-Tikriti - the Iraqi intelligence chief also known as [General] Tahir Habbush - who said Saddam knew there was a campaign to link him to September 11 and prove he had weapons of mass destruction," said Mr Cannistraro. "The Iraqis were prepared to satisfy those concerns. I reported the conversation to senior levels of the state department and I was told to stand aside and they would handle it," he said. He later heard the Iraqi offer had been "killed" by the Bush administration.
In the next three months, several more approaches from Iraq were made through third countries, US intelligence sources said. At one point, a meeting between CIA officials and Iraqi agents was arranged in Morocco but, according to the US sources, the Iraqi side did not show up.
Iraqi intelligence was also offering privately to allow several thousand US troops into the country to take part in the search for banned weapons.
Baghdad even proposed staging internationally-monitored elections within two years.
"All these offers had at bottom the same thing - that Saddam would stay in power, and that was unacceptable to the administration," Mr Cannistraro said. "There were serious attempts to cut a deal but they were all turned down by the president and vice president."
According to the Knight-Ridder news agency, the Iraqis sought a direct route to the Washington hawks in February. They found a Lebanese-American businessman, Imad el-Hage, who boasted he had a direct line to the Pentagon.
Mr Hage told yesterday's New York Times that he was initially approached by General Habbush's chief of foreign intelligence operations, who turned up in Mr Hage's Beirut office and promptly collapsed, apparently from stress.
When Mr Obeidi recovered, he urged Mr Hage to tell his Washington contacts Iraq was ready to talk about anything, including oil concessions, the Middle East peace process, and banned weapons. The Iraqi official said the "Americans could send 2,000 FBI agents to look wherever they wanted", according to Mr Hage.
A week later Mr Hage travelled to Baghdad and talked to Gen Habbush himself. The general repeated the invitation to allow Americans to search for weapons and added an offer to hand over a suspected terrorist, Abdul Rahman Yasin, who had been convicted in the US for the 1993 attack on the World Trade Centre. The regime would hold elections within two years, and the intelligence chief even offered to fly to London to discuss the issue in person.
Mr Hage relayed these offers via an intermediary to the Pentagon, but there was no official response. The Lebanese-American businessman persisted, and arranged a meeting with Mr Perle, a member of the Pentagon's advisory board.
It is understood that Mr Hage and Mr Perle met on March 7 in the lobby of the Marlborough hotel in Bloomsbury . They then went to an office nearby where over two hours Mr Hage outlined the Iraqi offer to Mr Perle.
Mr Perle was travelling in Europe yesterday and unavailable for comment. However, he told the New York Times he had been told by the CIA not to pursue contacts with the Iraqis.
A US intelligence source insisted that the decision not to negotiate came from the White House, which was demanding complete surrender.
According to an Arab source, Mr Perle sent a Saudi official a set of requirements he believed Iraq would have to fulfil. Those demands included Saddam's abdication and departure, first to a US military base for interrogation and then into supervised exile, a surrender of Iraqi troops, and the admission that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
According to Mr Hage, Gen Habbush rejected any proposal involving Saddam's abdication, offering future elections instead.
But even after the war got under way, the Iraqi intelligence chief appears to have sought new compromises.
This time the conduit was Robert Baer, another former CIA official. There was talk of a meeting between Mr Baer and GenHabbush in Ramadi, outside Baghdad , in early April. "It was a promise to hold free elections supervised by France and the US ," Mr Baer said. But the proposed meeting never happened. Two daysearlier, on April 9, the house it was supposed to take place in was bombed by US planes with six precision-guided bombs.