Bush open to exile for Hussein

Administration officials say deal is a possibility if it prevents war in Iraq

Four more warheads disclosed

Rumsfeld says decision on cooperation with U.N. expected within weeks


WASHINGTON - Three top Bush administration officials hinted yesterday that they might consider allowing Saddam Hussein to find a haven outside Iraq if that would avoid a war, even as they rejected calls for a delay in confronting him militarily.

Asked if such haven could mean a lack of war crimes trials, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld suggested that he "would recommend that some provision be made so that the senior leadership in that country and their families could be provided haven in some other country. And I think that that would be a fair trade to avoid a war."

In recent weeks, administration officials have spoken of offering leniency to subordinates who break with the Iraqi president, but they have not spoken so directly of making similar offers to him.

At the same time, administration officials say they regard the possibility of Hussein leaving voluntarily - with or without an amnesty arrangement - as extremely remote.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell advised Hussein yesterday to "listen to them carefully" when other nations urge him to give up power. And Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, warned that "it would be good to explore" such a move.

But, Rice said, "I just think that it is unlikely that this man is going to come down in any other way than to be forced."

All three officials said the moment of decision was fast approaching on whether Hussein's regime had complied with disarmament demands from the United Nations Security Council.

In Baghdad, the top two U.N. arms inspectors said Iraq has disclosed four more empty warheads for chemical weapons that are similar to the 11 discovered by an inspection team last week. They called the disclosure a sign that Iraq might become more obliging.

Rumsfeld said the decision on whether Iraq is cooperating with the United Nations - a determination generally regarded as a possible precursor to war - would be made "in a matter of weeks, not in months or years."

"That judgment call will just have to be made," he said.

Rumsfeld's emphasis on urgency, echoing the comments of Rice and Powell, seemed aimed at rebutting the recent talk that the inspections process should be allowed to unfold in the next year.

Powell - who, as the administration's top diplomat, was instrumental in helping negotiate the U.N. resolution that set up the inspections - joined the others, who are generally considered more hawkish, in suggesting that the process cannot continue indefinitely. The point was approaching, he said, when "it doesn't make any difference how long the inspection goes on, because they're not going to get to the truth because Saddam Hussein does not want them to get to the truth."

The judgment on Iraq's cooperation, he said, will come after Hans Blix, the chief U.N. inspector, delivers his report to the Security Council on Jan. 27.

But, Powell said, "I think that a persuasive case is there now that they're not cooperating."

Blix, meanwhile, who had just arrived in Baghdad to resume work there, said he would present his assessment of the first two months of inspections next week "in as nuanced and as factual a manner as possible. We are not playing any politics."

"It is for the council to decide where they go thereafter," said Blix, who was interviewed on CNN's Late Edition. "I'm not advising any member of the government, of the council. I'm advising the council as a whole. It may be that they will want us to continue. We would. We are built up in order to be there."

The three Bush officials' comments, in a coordinated round of television appearances, appeared to be aimed at increasing the military pressure on Baghdad and at shaking up the calculations being made by Hussein and his closest family members and associates in the nation's leadership.

Rice, Powell and Rumsfeld avoided commenting specifically on reports that Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and other nations in the Persian Gulf region were trying to arrange for Hussein's ouster or exile or for a coup led by Iraqi generals.

Both Rumsfeld, appearing on ABC's This Week, and Powell, on Late Edition, said that exile for Hussein - and a possible amnesty plan for some Iraqis - would be preferable to war.

But Powell also said the United States would have to ensure that any regime replacing Hussein's disarms under the demands of various Security Council resolutions.

Administration officials say the possibility of exile or a coup in Iraq is unlikely partly because of the tight grip that Hussein has over the people around him. These officials have tended to dismiss reports out of Saudi Arabia and other countries hinting of a coup or exile.

"The Saudis don't have close ties with anyone in Iraq, including dissidents," said an administration official, who suggested that such theories were coming from Arab and Muslim capitals, where leaders want to persuade their people that all avenues are being pursued to avoid war.

The comments of administration officials came as Powell prepared for a meeting of foreign ministers of the Security Council at the United Nations today.

Much of the discussion about Iraq is now focused on Blix's coming report to the Security Council. Though the administration warns that Blix will not likely produce a "smoking gun" and offer proof of Iraq's weapons programs, it says the report will almost certainly reinforce the contention that Iraq has not cooperated with the council's demands that it come clean.

Rumsfeld, repeating the administration's point on this subject, said the test of Hussein's intentions does not lie in whether a weapon is found.

Rice, on NBC's Meet the Press, said that the Jan. 27 presentation should not be considered a final deadline, but rather the start of the final phase of determining whether Hussein is cooperating.

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