Hussein accepted exile deal, Arabs say


DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Months before the invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein tentatively accepted a proposal to go into exile and avert war, but Arab leaders scuttled the deal, unable to reach consensus on it, senior officials in the United Arab Emirates said this week.

Sheik Muhammad bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and son of the late president, Sheik Zayed al-Nahyan, told the pan-Arab news channel Al Arabiya that his father had received tentative acceptance from Hussein to go into exile before the invasion of Iraq, in exchange for amnesty and protection.

The sheik's claim is the first official admission that Hussein was considering stepping down under the deal, which was presented at emergency Arab League summit talks at Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, in March 2003, weeks before the invasion.

"We had gotten final agreement from the different parties, the main players in the world and the person concerned - Saddam Hussein," Sheik Muhammad told Al Arabiya in a program commemorating the one-year anniversary of his father's death.

A senior UAE official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said representatives of the UAE met with Hussein on four occasions. He said Hussein appeared serious about a deal, but demanded that the Arab League back the offer before he would commit to it.

Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the UAE minister of information and culture, said Hussein had said he "would respond favorably to our proposal."

UAE officials stressed that Hussein's cooperation was far from guaranteed. But when the plan was presented to the Arab League in an emergency session weeks before the war, debate was squelched, UAE officials say. The Iraqi delegation, unaware of the back-channel negotiations, scoffed at the proposal. Arab League officials say the initiative was circulated but never debated.

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