Saturday, January 18, 2003

Arab nations tell Saddam: go now and we avoid war | Special reports | Guardian Unlimited

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Saudi plan for Iraq leader to go into exile

Jonathan Steele and Ewen MacAskill
Saturday January 18, 2003
The Guardian

The Saudi government is canvassing a plan to give Saddam Hussein a last-ditch chance to go into exile if the United Nations security council passes a new resolution authorising war against Iraq, western and Arab diplomats have confirmed.

Under the plan, Saudi Arabia would ask for a meeting of the Arab League to nominate a delegation to go to Baghdad and urge the Iraqi leader to avert war by leaving the country.

Arab diplomats have little hope that President Saddam will agree, and certainly not at the moment when he is assumed to believe the security council may yet step back from the brink - either because of divisions in its ranks or because weapons inspectors have found no "smoking gun" to prove he has violated earlier resolutions.

But they feel they must at least try to get him to give up, once the die is cast by the security council.

The plan is delicate because no Arab government is happy to promote "regime change" in a brother Arab nation.

The Saudi government said this week that it was preparing a new "initiative" but confirmed no details. "The Saudis do not want to make the details official but they have been leaking it," a western diplomat said yesterday.

"The concept is if you have a decision by the UN to go to war, give a chance for diplomacy to work before you go to war," the Saudi foreign minister, Saud al Faisal, told reporters in Riyadh.

Saddam Hussein has not left his country since the invasion of Kuwait more than 12 years ago, and few diplomats expect him to accept exile rather than go down fighting.

"I really doubt that Saddam would want exile. He's not the type to leave the country," a senior adviser to the government of one of Iraq's neighbours said this week.

Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, and Turkey's prime minister, Abdullah Gul, discussed the plan with Saudi Arabia's ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, in Riyadh this week. Refusing to go into details on the initiative, Crown Prince Abdullah told reporters he believed war would be avoided.

Saudi Arabia and other regional states will meet in Turkey next week for a final push to persuade President Saddam to cooperate with weapons inspectors. They will send a delegation to Baghdad and then to Washington, a senior Arab diplomat said.

News of the Saudi plan may have prompted the Iraqi leader to send his special envoy, Ali Hassan al-Majeed, a member of the revolutionary command council, yesterday on a tour of Arab capitals. A former general, Ali Hassan al-Majeed - sometimes dubbed "Chemical Ali" - was in charge of gas attacks on Iraqi Kurds at Halabja in 1988.

He began his sudden regional tour with a visit to Syria, the only Arab member of the security council. Majeed, a cousin of President Saddam, met President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. Later he told reporters any talk of exile for President Saddam in a sympathetic state was absurd.

Iraq's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, has also delivered messages from President Saddam to Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco over the past week.

Saudi Arabia has become the unofficial Arab leader since it launched a Middle Eastern peace initiative last March. As the largest country in the Gulf and with internal tensions gradually rising, Saudi Arabia is more worried about regional stability than almost any other Arab state.

It fears an American-led war, whether or not it has UN backing, could cause heavy civilian casualties and radicalize Arab populations throughout the Middle East. It might also lead to the break-up of Iraq, and prompt Washington to move on to try to change the regime in Iran, as well as in states on the Arab side of the Gulf.

Its sudden burst of diplomacy around Iraq, starting with next week's meeting in Turkey, and the fall-back plan of urging the Iraqi leader to accept exile, reflect the deepening realization in Arab states that the United States has dispatched enough troops to make a decision for war imminent.

Speculative elaborations on the Saudi plan emerged yesterday but diplomats gave them little credence.

Time magazine said Saudi Arabia hoped to encourage Iraqi generals to overthrow the Iraqi leader and his clique.

The magazine said the Saudi proposal required a UN amnesty for the vast majority of Iraqi officials if they mounted a coup. It would extend to all but 100-120 of the most senior Baath party officials, including President Saddam, his close relatives and others in the ruling circle.

"If there is amnesty for the rest of the government, Saddam will be checkmated," Time quoted one diplomat as saying. The proposed amnesty would be conditional on cooperation in implementing UN resolutions on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

"I doubt whether the international community would give Saddam immunity. There are many others in his entourage who would also not get it," a western diplomat said yesterday.


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