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Baghdad Made Last -Minute Appeal Before War

Baghdad Made Last -Minute Appeal Before War

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Just days before U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq, officials claiming to speak for a frantic Iraqi regime made a last-ditch effort to avert the war, but U.S. officials rebuffed the overture, the intermediary and U.S. officials said Thursday.

An influential adviser to the Defense Department received a secret message from a Lebanese-American businessman indicating that Saddam Hussein wanted to make a deal, they said. The businessman, Imad Hage, told the Associated Press Thursday that he believes an opportunity was missed.

But senior U.S. defense and intelligence officials said Thursday the war could not have been averted; numerous such prewar leads were pursued, they said, and the Bush administration viewed them largely as stalling tactics.

The White House played down the offer.

"The United States exhausted every legitimate and credible opportunity to resolve this peacefully," presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said. "Saddam Hussein could have averted military action. He had a number of opportunties to do so."

He noted that the United States had given Saddam 48 hours to leave Iraq and avert war but that he had refused.

McClellan refused to say whether the purported Iraqi effort to avert the war was brought to President Bush's attention.

The chief of the Iraqi Intelligence Service and other Iraqi officials had told Hage that they wanted Washington to know that Iraq no longer had weapons of mass destruction and offered to let American troops and experts do an independent search, said officials who discussed the matter only on condition of anonymity.

The Iraqi officials also offered to hand over a man accused of being involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing who was being held in Baghdad, an offer that became public in February.

Iraq said long before the war -- and captured officials still maintain -- that the country had no unconventional weapons. Though none has been found in seven months of searching, finding the weapons and overthrowing Saddam were the main reasons the Bush administration gave for going to war.

Hage, speaking to The Associated Press in Beirut, Lebanon on Thursday, said he had six meetings -- five in Beirut and one in Baghdad -- with senior Iraqi intelligence officials in the three months before the U.S.-led invasion March 20.

He said he believed the Iraqis he spoke to were desperate to avoid war.

"Definitely these people feared for their life and they realized that the threat was real," Hage said. "They were motivated for some deal, that some deal could be achieved ...."

Defense Department officials confirmed the prewar overture, first reported late Wednesday by ABC News and The New York Times. But they dismissed the idea that the offer could have averted war, since numerous other efforts by the United Nations and others had failed.

"Iraq and Saddam had ample opportunity through highly credible sources over a period of several years to take action to avoid war and had the means to use highly credible channels to do that," said Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita.

"Nobody needed to use questionable channels to convey messages," he said in a statement.

During the run-up to the war there was a wide variety of people sending signals that some Iraqis might want to negotiate, a senior U.S. intelligence official said Thursday, adding that they came via foreign intelligence services, other governments, third parties, "charlatans and independent actors."

All leads that were "plausible and even some that weren't" were followed up, he said on condition of anonymity. But no one offering a deal was in a position to make an acceptable one, the official said, asserting that most were made just to stall the invasion.

In the case of Hage, messages from Baghdad beginning in February were portrayed by Iraqi officials as having Saddam's endorsement, though that could not be verified.

In early March, Richard Perle, an adviser to top Pentagon officials, met Hage in London, officials said. According to both men, Hage laid out the Iraqis' position and pressed the Iraqi request for a direct meeting with Perle or other U.S. representatives.

The CIA authorized Perle's meeting with the Iraqis, but eventually told him they didn't want to pursue the channel.

Hage previously lived in suburban Washington, where he started an insurance company. He moved to Lebanon in the 1990s and has been trying for 10 years to break into politics there but so far with little success.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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