WASHINGTON -- President Bush, asserting anew that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein should be ousted, said last night that he may be willing to grant the Iraqi leader safe passage to a third country and immunity from war-crimes prosecution if he would leave power.
Mr. Bush, asked at a news conference about his wife's suggestion that Mr. Hussein be tried, said there were "plenty of grounds" under which the Iraqi president could be prosecuted for war crimes.
But he stressed the overriding importance to Iraq of removing Mr. Hussein.
"If you came to me as a broker and you said, 'I can get him out of there, but he'd have to be able to live a happy life forevermore in some third country, with all kinds of conditions never to go back and brutalize his people again' -- I'd have to think about it, but I might be willing to say, so far as our pressing charges, we'd be willing to get him out."
At the same time, Mr. Bush rejected as "unacceptable" a suggestion attributed to former President Richard M. Nixon that a "contract" be arranged for Mr. Hussein's assassination.
The European Community foreign ministers agreed Monday that the Iraqi president should be held personally responsible for deaths of Kurds and atrocities during the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait. The ministers decided to ask U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar about the feasibility of bringing Mr. Hussein to trial.
Before the EC acted, the United States had been noncommittal on the issue of bringing Mr. Hussein and other top Iraqi officials to trial, although Defense Department lawyers have been gathering evidence.
During the Persian Gulf war, the administration leaned toward allowing allies, particularly the Kuwaitis and Saudis, to take the lead, although at one point Mr. Bush said Mr. Hussein would be brought to justice.
Earlier yesterday, Secretary of State James A. Baker III showed new receptivity to the idea of war-crimes trials, although Defense Secretary Dick Cheney ruled out use of U.S. forces to catch him.
Mr. Baker said he would "further pursue" the prospect with the 12 foreign ministers of the European Community when he meets with them today in Luxembourg.
Separately, Thomas R. Pickering, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and John Bolton, assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, were discussing the issue with foreign officials in New York.
Mr. Perez de Cuellar sounded lukewarm about the EC proposal yesterday. While calling it an "interesting idea," he cautioned against anything that might interfere with the United Nations' immediate priority of providing relief to refugees.
The United Nations has been negotiating with the Iraqi government to ensure that relief workers will be allowed to operate well inside Iraq.
"I would like nothing to be done which could prejudice the humanitarian action to which we, the United Nations, are totally committed," he said.
Mr. Cheney, interviewed yesterday morning on National Public Radio, said, "If somebody else wants to go to Baghdad and arrest Saddam Hussein and try him, that's fine. I have absolutely no objections whatsoever. But that's not on our agenda."