Administration hints exile of Saddam could stop war |

Administration hints exile of Saddam could stop war

WASHINGTON – Three top officials of the Bush administration hinted on Sunday that they might consider allowing Saddam Hussein to find a safe haven from Iraq if that would avoid a war, even as they rejected calls for delay before confronting him militarily.

Asked if a safe haven could also mean forgoing war crimes trials, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld suggested that he personally “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 Iraqi subordinates who break with Saddam, but have not spoken so directly of making similar offers to him. At the same time, administration officials say they regard the possibility of Saddam leaving voluntarily – with or without an amnesty arrangement – as extremely remote.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on Sunday urged Saddam to “listen to them carefully” when other nations urge him to abdicate. And Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s national security adviser, said “it would be good to explore it,” but added: “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 asserted that the moment of decision was fast approaching on whether Saddam’s regime had complied with the disarmament demands from United Nations Security Council.

In Baghdad, the top two U.N. arms inspectors said Iraq had disclosed four more empty chemical weapons warheads similar to the 12 discovered by an inspection team last week. They called the disclosure a sign that Iraq might be more forthcoming.

Rumsfeld said that 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,” adding: “That judgment call will just have to be made.”

Rumsfeld’s emphasis on urgency, echoing the comments of the others, seemed aimed at rebutting the talk in recent days that the inspections process should be allowed to play out in the next year.

Powell, who as the administration’s top diplomat was instrumental in helping negotiate the resolution that set up the current round of inspections, joined the others, who are generally seen as 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.”

This judgment, he said, will come after the report of Hans Blix, the chief U.N. inspector, to the Security Council on Jan. 27, adding: “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,” he said.

“It is for the Council to decide where they go thereafter,” added 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 officials’ comments, in a carefully coordinated round of television appearances, appeared calculated to both increase the military pressure on Baghdad and to shake up the calculations being made by Saddam and his closest family and associates in the nation’s leadership.

They avoided commenting specifically on reports that Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and other nations in the region were trying to arrange for his ouster, exile or a coup by Iraqi generals.

Both Rumsfeld, appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” and Powell, on “Late Edition,” said that exile, possibly coupled with an amnesty plan for some Iraqis, would be preferable to war.

But Powell also said that the United States would have to insure that any regime replacing Saddam’s would also have to disarm under the demands of various Security Council resolutions.

Administration officials have tended to dismiss reports from Saudi Arabia and other countries to the effect that a coup or exile were possible.

“The Saudis don’t have close ties with anyone in Iraq, including dissidents,” said an administration official, who suggested that talk of a coup or exile was coming from Arab and Muslim capitals, where leaders want to convince their people that all avenues are being pursued to avoid war.

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

He met Sunday evening in New York with the foreign ministers of China and France, ahead of what some diplomats at the United Nations say could be a difficult session on Iraq and North Korea. After the meetings, an administration official said France and China agreed with the United States that Iraq was not complying with the demands that it disclose and destroy its weapons. But he said there was no conclusion on what actions should be taken, and when they might be taken, after Mr. Blix reports his conclusions on Iraq.

As for North Korea, the official said “the next step” in the confrontation over its nuclear programs would be for the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency to refer the problem to the Security Council for possible action, but not to impose sanctions on the North. He said this next phase would occur at “a deliberate pace.”

Much of the discussion on Iraq is now focused on Blix’s report to the Security Council on Jan. 27. Though the administration has cautioned that the report will not likely produce a “smoking gun” proving the existence of Iraq’s weapons programs, it will almost certainly reinforce the contention that Iraq has not cooperated with the Council’s demands.

Rumsfeld, repeating the administration’s point on this subject, said:: “The test is, is Saddam cooperating or is he not cooperating. That is what ought to be measured. That’s what the U.N. asked for.”

Rice, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said that the Jan. 27 presentation should be considered the start of the final phase of determining whether Saddam was cooperating. She did not specify how long this final phase would last, but Rumsfeld’s comment that it would only be a matter of weeks echoed the comments that officials have been making in private.

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