Baghdad made last minute overture to U.S. before war began

Friday, November 7, 2003

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Negotiators for Saddam Hussein tried to strike a last-minute deal with the Bush administration to avoid an invasion after realizing "the threat was real," a Lebanese-American businessman who tried to serve as a go-between said Thursday.

"These people feared for their life," Imad Hage said.

Hage said that in the 2 1/2 months before the United States invaded Iraq on March 20, he had six meetings with senior Iraqi intelligence officials and passed on details of his discussions to contacts at the Pentagon.

Baghdad's offer included allowing U.S. agents to search for weapons of mass destruction and a promise of oil contracts for American companies. The United States, though, wanted Saddam to step down, something the Iraqis did not propose, and U.S. officials said the offer Hage carried wouldn't have averted war.

"The United States exhausted every legitimate and credible opportunity to resolve this peacefully," presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said Thursday in Washington. "Saddam Hussein could have averted military action. He had a number of opportunities to do so."

McClellan noted the United States gave Saddam 48 hours to leave Iraq and avert war but that he refused. McClellan refused to say whether the purported Iraqi effort to avoid the war was brought to President Bush's attention.

"The regime of Saddam Hussein had ample -- well beyond ample -- opportunity to avoid war," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfled said at a Pentagon news conference Thursday.

Hage's effort, first reported by ABC News and The New York Times, was one of many rumored or previously made public that failed to prevent war.

Lebanese-born Hage, 46, studied and lived in the United States from 1978 until the 1990s, when he returned to Lebanon, where he runs the American Underwriters Group insurance company in Beirut. He said his initial contact with the U.S. government was another Lebanese-American, Mike Maloof, an analyst in the office of Douglas Feith, U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy and planning.

Hage said the then-head of Iraqi intelligence foreign operations, Hassan al-Obeidi, first contacted him through a mutual acquaintance. Hage said he met five times with al-Obeidi in Beirut, the last time a few days before the war began. Hage said he also went to Baghdad to see the director of Iraqi intelligence, Tahir Jalil Haboush.

His Iraqi contacts "realized that the threat was real," Hage said. "They were motivated for some deal, that some deal could be achieved."

According to Hage, the Iraqis offered to let 2,000 U.S. agents come to Iraq to verify that it didn't have weapons of mass destruction. Iraq said long before the war -- and captured officials still maintain -- that the country had no such weapons. Though none has been discovered in seven months of searching, finding the weapons and overthrowing Saddam were the main reasons the Bush administration gave for going to war.

The Iraqis also told Hage that Iraq was willing to cooperate in the war on terrorism and said they would surrender Abdul-Rahman Yasin, who had been in Iraqi custody since 1994 and is on the FBI's most wanted list for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

The FBI has posted a $25 million reward for information leading to Yasin's arrest. In February, Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri said Baghdad offered to hand over Yasin but Washington rejected the offer.

Baghdad also said it would accept U.S. Middle East peace efforts, Hage said. U.S. companies would be given "favorable status vis-a-vis oil exploration and contracts" and free and fair parliamentary elections would be held within two years, he added.

Hage said he believed the two Iraqi officials were acting with the knowledge of their superiors but he could not tell whether they were close to Saddam.

The New York Times quoted internal Pentagon e-mails from Maloof, whom Hage identified as his initial contact, to an aide to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, outlining the Iraqi overtures. It was unclear, however, if top officials at the Pentagon pursued the matter. Maloof, who lost his security clearance over another issue, is on paid administrative leave, the Times said.

In early March, Richard Perle, an adviser to top Pentagon officials, met Hage in London, U.S. officials said. According to both men, Hage laid out the Iraqis' position and pressed the Iraqi request for a direct meeting with Perle or other U.S. representatives.

The CIA authorized Perle's meeting with the Iraqis, but eventually told him they didn't want to pursue the matter.

Hage said he was glad to have tried.

"Yes, I think there was an opportunity," he said in his office in a tower overlooking the Beirut Harbor.

Hage said he was going public now because of what he said were leaks from the Pentagon and other agencies in Washington.

Hage has been trying to break into Lebanese politics. The story of his mediation efforts may help in a country that staunchly opposed the Iraq war. Many Lebanese also are anti-American, however, and may be suspicious of Hage's claims of links to the Bush administration. Hage finished a distant third in a by-election to fill a parliamentary seat in September.

Associated Press writer Pauline Jelinek contributed to this story from Washington.

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