Iraq reportedly offered U.S. a deal to avert war

Nov. 6, 2003, 12:31AM
Secret message came via businessman

By JAMES RISEN
New York Times

WASHINGTON — As U.S. soldiers massed on the Iraqi border in March and diplomats argued about war, an influential adviser to the Pentagon received a secret message from a Lebanese-American businessman: Saddam Hussein wanted to make a deal.

Iraqi officials, including the chief of the Iraqi Intelligence Service, had told the businessman that they wanted Washington to know that Iraq no longer had weapons of mass destruction, and they offered to allow American troops and experts to conduct an independent search. They also offered to hand over a man accused of being involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing who was being held in Baghdad. At one point, the intermediary said in an interview, the Iraqis pledged to hold elections.

The messages from Baghdad, first relayed by the intermediary in February to an analyst in the office of Douglas J. Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy and planning, were part of an attempt by Iraqi intelligence officers to open last-ditch negotiations with the Bush administration through a clandestine communications channel, according to people involved in the discussion.

The efforts were portrayed by Iraqi officials as having the approval of Saddam, according to interviews and documents.

The overtures, after a decade of evasions and deceptions and a number of other attempts to broker last-minute meetings with U.S. officials, were ultimately rebuffed. But the messages from Baghdad raised enough interest that in early March, Richard Perle, an influential adviser to top Pentagon officials, met in London with the Lebanese-American businessman, Imad Hage. According to both men, Hage laid out the Iraqis’ position to Perle, and he pressed the Iraqi request for a direct meeting with Perle or another representative of the United States.

“I was dubious that this would work,” Perle said, “but I agreed to talk to people in Washington.”

Perle said he sought authorization from CIA officials to meet with the Iraqis.

Perle said that the CIA officials said they did not want to pursue this channel and indicated they had already engaged in separate contacts with Baghdad. Perle said the response was simple: “The message was, `Tell them that we will see them in Baghdad.’ ”

A senior U.S. intelligence official said this was one of several contacts with the Iraqis or with people who said they were trying to broker meetings on their behalf before the war. “These signals came via a broad range of foreign intelligence services, other governments, third parties, charlatans and independent actors,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Every lead that was at all plausible, and some that weren’t, were followed up.”

There were a variety of efforts, both public and discreet, to avert a war in Iraq, but this clandestine channel appears to have been a final attempt by the Iraqis to communicate directly with U.S. officials.

In interviews in Beirut, Lebanon, Hage said that the Iraqis appeared intimidated and scared by the American military threat. “The Iraqis were finally taking it seriously,” he said, “and they wanted to talk, and they offered things they never would have offered if the build-up hadn’t occurred.”

Perle said he found it “puzzling” that the Iraqis would use such a complicated series of contacts to communicate “a quite astonishing proposal” to the Bush administration. But former American intelligence officials with extensive experience in the Middle East say that many Arab leaders like Saddam have traditionally placed a high value on back channels of communication, although such informal arrangements are sometimes considered suspect in Washington.

Perle now downplays the importance of his contact with Hage. He said he finds it difficult to believe that Saddam would make serious proposals through that kind of channel. “There were so many other ways to communicate,” he said. “There were any number of governments involved in the end game, the Russians, French, Saudis.”

The activity in this back channel, which was detailed in interviews and in documents obtained by The New York Times, appears to show an increasingly frantic Iraqi regime trying to find room to maneuver as the enemy closed in. And it also provides a rare glimpse into a subterranean world of international networking.

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