Rumsfeld denies Iraq arms claims

Nov. 8, 2003, 8:33PM
Rumsfeld denies Iraq arms claims
Backpedals from pre-war assertions
By ERIC ROSENBERG
Hearst News Service

WASHINGTON — In the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said U.S. forces would be welcomed by the Iraqi citizenry and that Saddam Hussein had large stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons.

Now, after both statements have been shown to be either incorrect or vastly exaggerated, Rumsfeld — with the same trademark confidence that he exuded before the war — is denying that he ever made such assertions.

In recent testy exchanges with reporters, Rumsfeld interrupted the questioners and attacked the premise of the questions if they dealt with his pre-war comments about weapons of mass destruction and Americans-as-liberators.

For example, on Feb. 20, a month before the invasion, Rumsfeld fielded a question about whether Americans would be greeted as liberators if they invaded Iraq.

“Do you expect the invasion, if it comes, to be welcomed by the majority of the civilian population of Iraq?” Jim Lehrer asked the defense secretary on PBS’ The News Hour. “There is no question but that they would be welcomed,” Rumsfeld replied, referring to American forces. “Go back to Afghanistan, the people were in the streets playing music, cheering, flying kites, and doing all the things that the Taliban and the al-Qaida would not let them do. Saddam Hussein has one of the most vicious regimes on the face of the earth. And the people know that.”

But on Sept. 25 — a particularly bloody day in which one U.S. soldier was killed in an ambush, eight Iraqi civilians died in a mortar strike and a member of the U.S-appointed governing council died after an assassination attempt five days earlier — Rumsfeld was asked about the surging resistance.

“Before the war in Iraq, you stated the case very eloquently and you said … they would welcome us with open arms,” Sinclair Broadcasting anchor Morris Jones said to Rumsfeld as the prelude to a question.

Rumsfeld quickly cut him off.

“Never said that,” he said. “Never did. You may remember it well, but you’re thinking of somebody else. You can’t find, anywhere, me saying anything like either of those two things you just said I said.”

When testifying about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction before the House Armed Services Committee on Sept. 18, 2002, Rumsfeld said Saddam “has amassed large clandestine stocks of biological weapons, including anthrax and botulism toxin and possibly smallpox. His regime has amassed large clandestine stockpiles of chemical weapons, including VX and sarin and mustard gas.”

Last month, after U.S. weapons hunters reported to the administration and Congress that they have yet to find a single weapon of mass destruction in Iraq, Rumsfeld was asked about his earlier statements.

A reporter at a Pentagon news conference asked: “In retrospect, were you a little too far-leaning in your statement that Iraq categorically had caches of weapons, of chemical and biological weapons, given what’s been found to date? You painted a picture of extensive stocks” of Iraqi mass-killing weapons.

“Wait,” Rumsfeld interjected. “You go back and give me something that talks about extensive stocks. The U.N. reported extensive stocks. That is where that came from. I said what I believed to be the case, and I don’t — I’d be surprised if you found the word `extensive.’ ”

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.