- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2003

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein remained defiantly in Baghdad last night, ignoring a last-chance proposal for refuge in Bahrain and a U.S. offer to consider a deal on future war-crimes charges.
Several non-Arab countries also offered Saddam a home in exile, according to reports, while Arab leaders scrambled to avoid a war that would bring unknown consequences to their countries.
Hours before President Bush's ultimatum expired at 8 p.m. yesterday, Bahrain's king, Sheik Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, expressed "Bahrain's readiness to host [Saddam] should he wish to live here in all dignity and respect without this in any way undermining Iraq's capacities and status," said a statement issued after an emergency Cabinet meeting led by the king.
The official Bahraini news agency quoted the king as saying the alternative to war was for "the Iraqi president to hand over responsibility [of governing] to sides capable of handling the situation in such a way as to safeguard the dignity of Iraq and the standing of the Iraqi leader."
Bahrain, a major U.S. ally, is home to the Navy's 5th Fleet and more than 5,000 military personnel.
In Washington, Bush administration officials said they would consider negotiating a deal for Saddam with respect to prosecution by a war-crimes tribunal if he accepted an exile offer.
"We've said we'd be willing to work with such proposals, were they to be accepted," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters.
"But at this point we've seen no such acceptance. We've seen continued refusal by the government of Iraq to take any option that provides for a peaceful settlement, and all we can do at this point is say let's hope they take the offer."
A senior State Department official later refused to guarantee immunity for Saddam, saying that "Iraqis and the international community need to decide on war crimes, and if he takes advantage of one of these offers, that discussion will be held."
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said it was "impossible" for Saddam to relinquish power under pressure from Washington and go into exile.
Mr. Bush "is also asking the Iraqi people and the Iraqi armed forces to allow the entry of U.S. forces in other words, he wants to occupy Iraq for free, without a single shot being fired," Mr. Aziz told reporters in Baghdad. "This is an illusion, of course."
He described the 280,000 U.S. and British troops waiting at Iraq's doorstep as "mercenaries" who would be repelled by a people defending their land.
Bahrain was one of several Persian Gulf states backing a recent proposal by the United Arab Emirates that Saddam cede power to a transitional Arab-U.N. administration. The idea was ignored by an Arab summit earlier this month, but Saudi Arabia and a few other nations spoke positively about it.
News reports from the region yesterday said Saudi authorities were "actively advocating" that Saddam step down, but officials in Riyadh vehemently rejected the reports as "baseless."
Reuters news agency quoted a Saudi diplomatic source as saying: "The kingdom, and other parties, are exerting maximum effort to prevent a devastating war, and they have proposed the idea of exile for Saddam and securing a safe haven for him and his family."
Earlier this month, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said his country had already offered sanctuary to "enough people," including former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted in a 1999 coup by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and former Ugandan President Idi Amin.
About 5,000 U.S. troops are based in Saudi Arabia, but the kingdom, which played a key role in the 1991 Gulf war, has said it will not participate this time.
Elsewhere in the region, leaders braced for the effects of war, including hundreds of thousands of refugees expected to stream out of Iraq. Officials from Jordan met with counterparts from Saudi Arabia, and Iranian representatives conferred with Pakistani leaders.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak blamed Iraq for the impending war and promised that Egypt's Suez Canal would remain open to U.S. and allied warships.
"My hope is that the Iraqi government will realize the seriousness of the situation in which it put itself and us," he said in a nationally televised address.
He said he also hoped "that the different international forces will realize the dangerous repercussions of any military action on the safety and stability of the Middle East region, as well as on the safety and stability of the world as a whole."
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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