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[casi] Iraq Reportedly Tried for Last-Minute Deal to Avert War

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Iraq Reportedly Tried for Last-Minute Deal to Avert War

By JAMES RISEN, The New York Times

WASHINGTON, Nov. 5 — As American 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 a search. The businessman said in an interview that the
Iraqis also offered to hand over a man accused of being involved in the World
Trade Center bombing in 1993 who was being held in Baghdad. At one point, he
said, the Iraqis pledged to hold elections.The messages from Baghdad, first
relayed in February to an analyst in the office of Douglas J. Feith, the under
secretary 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.The efforts were portrayed by Iraqi officials as having the approval of
President Saddam Hussein, according to interviews and documents.The overtures,
after a decade of evasions and deceptions by Iraq, were ultimately rebuffed. But
the messages raised enough interest that in early March, Richard N. Perle, an
influential adviser to top Pentagon officials, met in London with the
Lebanese-American businessman, Imad Hage.According to both men, Mr. Hage laid out the
Iraqis' position to Mr. Perle, and he pressed the Iraqi request for a direct
meeting with Mr. Perle or another representative of the United States.

"I was dubious that this would work," said Mr. Perle, widely recognized as an
intellectual architect of the Bush administration's hawkish policy toward
Iraq, "but I agreed to talk to people in Washington."Mr. Perle said he sought
authorization from C.I.A. officials to meet with the Iraqis, but the officials
told him they did not want to pursue this channel, and they indicated they had
already engaged in separate contacts with Baghdad. Mr. Perle said, "The message
was, `Tell them that we will see them in Baghdad.' "A senior United States
intelligence official said this was one of several contacts with Iraqis or with
people who said they were trying to broker meetings on their behalf. "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 Mr. Hage's back channel
appears to have been a final attempt by Mr. Hussein's government to reach American
officials.In interviews in Beirut, Mr. Hage said the Iraqis appeared
intimidated 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."Mr. Perle said he found it
"puzzling" that the Iraqis would have used such complicated contacts to
communicate "a quite astonishing proposal" to the administration.But former American
intelligence officers with extensive experience in the Middle East say many Arab
leaders have traditionally placed a high value on secret communications,
though such informal arrangements are sometimes considered suspect in
Washington.The activity in this back channel, 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 closes in. It also provides a
rare glimpse into a subterranean world of international networking.The key
link in the network was Imad Hage, who has spent much of his life straddling two
worlds. Mr. Hage, a Maronite Christian who was born in Beirut in 1956, fled
Lebanon in 1976 after the civil war began there. He ended up in the United
States, where he went to college and became a citizen.Living in suburban
Washington, Mr. Hage started an insurance company, American Underwriters Group, and
became involved in Lebanese-American political circles. In the late 1990's, he
moved his family and his company to Lebanon.Serendipity brought him important
contacts in the Arab world and in America. An influential Lebanese Muslim he met
while handling an insurance claim introduced him to Mohammed Nassif, a senior
Syrian intelligence official and a close aide to President Bashar al-Assad.On
trips back to Washington last year, Mr. Hage befriended a fellow
Lebanese-American, Michael Maloof, who was working in the Pentagon as an analyst in an
intelligence unit set up by Mr. Feith to look for ties between terrorist groups
like Al Qaeda and countries like Iraq. Mr. Maloof has ties to many leading
conservatives in Washington, having worked for Mr. Perle at the Pentagon during the
Reagan administration.In January 2003, as American pressure was building for
a face-off with Iraq, Mr. Hage's two worlds intersected.On a trip to Damascus,
he said, Mr. Nassif told him about Syria's frustrations in communicating with
American officials. On a trip to the United States later that month, Mr. Hage
said, Mr. Maloof arranged for him to deliver that message personally to Mr.
Perle and to Jaymie Durnan, then a top aide to the deputy defense secretary,
Paul D. Wolfowitz. Pentagon officials confirmed that the meetings occurred.Mr.
Perle, a member of the Defense Policy Board at the Pentagon, is known in
foreign capitals as an influential adviser to top administration officials.After Mr.
Hage told his contacts in Beirut and Damascus about meeting Mr. Perle, Mr.
Hage's influential Lebanese Muslim friend asked Mr. Hage to meet a senior Iraqi
official eager to talk to the Americans. Mr. Hage cautiously agreed.In
February, as the United States was gearing up its campaign for a Security Council
resolution authorizing force against Iraq, Hassan al-Obeidi, chief of foreign
operations of the Iraqi Intelligence Service, arrived in Mr. Hage's Beirut
office.But within minutes, Mr. Hage said, Mr. Obeidi collapsed, and a doctor was
called to treat him. "He came to my office, sat down, and in five minutes fell
ill," recalled Mr. Hage. "He looked like a man under enormous stress."After
being treated, Mr. Obeidi explained that the Iraqis wanted to cooperate with the
Americans and could not understand why the Americans were focused on Iraq
rather than on countries, like Iran, that have long supported terrorists, Mr. Hage
said. The Iraqi seemed desperate, Mr. Hage said, "like someone who feared for
his own safety, although he tried to hide it."Mr. Obeidi told Mr. Hage that
Iraq would make deals to avoid war, including helping in the Mideast peace
process. "He said, if this is about oil, we will talk about U.S. oil concessions,"
Mr. Hage recalled. "If it is about the peace process, then we can talk. If
this is about weapons of mass destruction, let the Americans send over their
people. There are no weapons of mass destruction."Mr. Obeidi said the "Americans
could send 2,000 F.B.I. agents to look wherever they wanted," Mr. Hage
recalled.He said that when he told Mr. Obeidi that the United States seemed adamant
that Saddam Hussein give up power, Mr. Obeidi bristled, saying that would be
capitulation. But later, Mr. Hage recounted, Mr. Obeidi said Iraq could agree to
hold elections within the next two years.Mr. Hage said Mr. Obeidi made it
clear that he wanted to get his message to Washington, so Mr. Hage contacted Mr.
Maloof in Washington. "Everything I was hearing, I was telling Mike," he said.A
few days later, Mr. Hage said, he met Mr. Obeidi at a hotel in downtown
Beirut, and Mr. Obeidi repeated the offers of concessions, which he said came from
the highest levels of the Iraqi government. Mr. Obeidi seemed even more
depressed. "The U.S. buildup was clearly getting to them," Mr. Hage said.A week
later, Mr. Hage said, he agreed to hold further meetings in Baghdad. When he
arrived, he was driven to a large, well-guarded compound, where he was met by a
gray-haired man in a military uniform. It was Tahir Jalil Habbush, the director
of the Iraqi Intelligence Service, who is No. 16 on the United States list of
most wanted Iraqi leaders. Mr. Hage said Mr. Habbush asked him if it was true
that he knew Mr. Perle. "Have you met him?"Mr. Hage said Mr. Habbush began to
vent his frustration over what the Americans really wanted. He said that to
demonstrate the Iraqis' willingness to help fight terrorism, Mr. Habbush offered
to hand over Abdul Rahman Yasin, who has been indicted in United States in
connection with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Mr. Yasin fled to Iraq after
the bombing, and the United States put up a $25 million reward for his
capture.Mr. Hage said Mr. Habbush offered to turn him over to Mr. Hage, but Mr. Hage
said he would pass on the message that Mr. Yasin was available.Mr. Hage said
Mr. Habbush also insisted that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and
added, "Let your friends send in people and we will open everything to them."Mr.
Hage said he asked Mr. Habbush, "Why don't you tell this to the Bush
administration?" He said Mr. Habbush replied cryptically, "We have talks with
people."Mr. Hage said he later learned that one contact was in Rome between the C.I.A.
and representatives of the Iraqi intelligence service. American officials
confirm that the meeting took place, but say that the Iraqi representative was not
a current intelligence official and that the meeting was not productive.In
addition, there was an attempt to set up a meeting in Morocco between Mr.
Habbush and United States officials, but it never took place, according to American
officials.On Feb. 19, Mr. Hage faxed a three-page report on his trip to
Baghdad to Mr. Maloof in Washington. The Iraqis, he wrote, "understand the days of
manipulating the United States are over." He said top Iraqi officials,
including Mr. Habbush and Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime minister, wanted to meet with
American officials.The report also listed five areas of concessions the Iraqis
said they would make to avoid a war, including cooperation in fighting
terrorism and "full support for any U.S. plan" in the Arab-Israeli peace process. In
addition, the report said that "the U.S. will be given first priority as it
relates to Iraq oil, mining rights," and that Iraq would cooperate with United
States strategic interests in the region. Finally, under the heading
"Disarmament," the report said, "Direct U.S. involvement on the ground in disarming
Iraq."Mr. Hage's messages touched off a brief flurry of communications within the
Pentagon, according to interviews and copies of e-mail messages obtained by
The Times.In an e-mail on Feb. 21 to Mr. Durnan, the Wolfowitz aide, Mr. Maloof
wrote that Mr. Perle "is willing to meet with Hage and the Iraqis if it has
clearance from the building," meaning the Pentagon.In an e-mail response, Mr.
Durnan said: "Mike, working this. Keep this close hold." In a separate e-mail to
two Pentagon officials, Mr. Durnan asked for background information about Mr.
Hage. "There is some interesting stuff happening overseas and I need to know
who and what he is," he wrote in one e-mail.Mr. Hage had impressive contacts,
but there was one blemish on his record: In January he had been briefly
detained by the F.B.I. at Dulles Airport in Washington when a handgun was found in
his checked luggage. He said he did not believe it was a security violation
because it was not in his carry-on luggage, and the authorities allowed him to
leave after a few hours.Senior Pentagon officials said Mr. Durnan relayed
messages he received from Mr. Maloof to the appropriate officials at the Pentagon,
but they said that Mr. Durnan never discussed the Hage channel to the Iraqis
with Mr. Wolfowitz. (In May, Mr. Maloof, who has lost his security clearances,
was placed on paid administrative leave by the Pentagon, for reasons unrelated
to the contacts with Mr. Hage.)Mr. Hage continued to hear from the Iraqis and
passed on their urgency about meeting Mr. Perle or another representative of
the United States. In one memo sent to other Pentagon officials in early March,
Mr. Maloof wrote: "Hage quoted Dr. Obeidi as saying this is the last window
or channel through which this message has gone to the United States. Hage
characterized the tone of Dr. Obeidi as begging."Working through Mr. Maloof, Mr.
Hage finally arranged to meet with Mr. Perle in London in early March. The two
met in an office in Knightsbridge for about two hours to discuss the Iraqi
proposals, the men said. Mr. Hage told Mr. Perle that the Iraqis wanted to meet
with him or someone from the administration.Mr. Perle said he subsequently
contacted a C.I.A. official to ask if he should meet with the Iraqis. "The answer
came back that they weren't interested in pursuing it," Mr. Perle said in an
interview, "and I was given the impression that there had already been
contacts."Mr. Perle now plays down the importance of his contact with Mr. Hage. He said
he found it difficult to believe that Mr. Hussein would make serious
proposals through such a 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."Nonetheless, Mr. Hage continued to deliver messages from
the Iraqis to Mr. Maloof.In one note to Mr. Perle in mid-March, Mr. Maloof
relayed a message from Mr. Hage that Mr. Obeidi and Mr. Habbush "were prepared to
meet with you in Beirut, and as soon as possible, concerning `unconditional
terms.' " The message from Mr. Hage said, "Such a meeting has Saddam Hussein's
clearance."No meetings took place, and the invasion began on March 20. Mr.
Hage wonders what might have happened if the Americans had pursued the back
channel to Baghdad."At least they could have talked to them," he said.Copyright ©
2003 <A HREF="">The New York Times 

Roger Stroope
Northern Arizona University
Flagstaff USA

In response to reporters and critics queries during the first Gulf War;
"I firmly believed we should not march into Baghdad ...To occupy Iraq would
instantly shatter our coalition, turning the whole Arab world against us and
make a broken tyrant, into a latter-day Arab hero …" George H. W. Bush (41)

"...assigning young soldiers to a fruitless hunt for a securely entrenched
dictator and condemning them to fight in what would be an unwinnable urban
guerrilla war." George H. W. Bush (41)

In response to reporters query relating to attacks against US service people;
"Bring 'em on!" George W. Bush (43) July 3, 2003

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