Hussein sought last-minute deal to avert war

Inspections, elections discussed in quiet contact

November 06, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - 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: President 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 U.S. troops and experts to conduct an independent search. They also offered to hand over Abdul Rahman Yasin, 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, 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.

The efforts were portrayed by Iraqi officials as having the approval of Hussein.

The overtures, following 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 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.

Perle said he sought authorization from CIA officials to meet with the Iraqis. He said the CIA officials did not want to pursue this channel and indicated that they had engaged in separate contacts with 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.

Hage said that the Iraqis appeared intimidated and scared by the U.S. 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 buildup 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 U.S. intelligence officials with extensive experience in the Middle East say that many Arab leaders have placed a high value on back channels of communication, although such arrangements are sometimes considered suspect in Washington.

The activity in this back channel, which was detailed in interviews and in documents, appears to show an increasingly frantic Iraqi regime trying to find room to maneuver as the enemy closed in.

The key link in this network was Hage, who has spent much of his life straddling two worlds. Hage, a Maronite Christian 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, Hage started an insurance firm, American Underwriters Group, and became involved in Lebanese-American political circles. In the late 1990s, Hage moved his family and his company to Lebanon.

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 the Syrian president, Bashar Assad.

On trips to Washington last year, he befriended a Lebanese-American, Michael Maloof, who was working in the Pentagon as an analyst in an intelligence unit created by Feith to look for ties between terrorist groups such as al-Qaida and countries like Iraq. Maloof had ties to leading conservatives in Washington, having worked for Perle at the Pentagon during the Reagan administration.

In January 2003, Hage's two worlds intersected. On a trip to Damascus, Syria, he said, Nassif told him about Syria's frustrations in communicating with U.S. officials. On a trip to the United States later that month, Hage said, Maloof arranged for him to deliver that message personally to Perle and to Jaymie Durnan, then a top aide to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz. Pentagon officials confirm the meetings occurred.

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