- The Washington Times - Monday, October 7, 2002

LONDON Members of Saddam Hussein's inner circle are defecting to the opposition or making discreet offers of peace in the hope of being spared retribution if the Baghdad dictator is toppled, according to Iraqi exiles.
The reports come as both Iraqi and Western alliance officials worked to round up support from Middle East nations for their respective sides in the expected confrontation.
Ayad al-Awi, the head of the opposition Iraqi National Accord, said his group in recent weeks had received senior defectors from the Iraqi security services, which form the regime's nerve center.
At the same time, Kurdish groups said they had received secret approaches from military commanders offering to turn their weapons on Saddam when the war begins.
They said members of the al-Majid clan, the pillar of Saddam's tribal power base, had made contact to seek assurances about their fate.
In another positive sign for the U.S. war effort yesterday, Iran said that if U.S. aircraft violated its airspace unintentionally while attacking Iraq, it would not be considered a hostile act.
Iran, for years an enemy of both Iraq and the United States, says it is opposed to a U.S. attack on Iraq and the presence of foreign forces in the vital oil-rich region.
But, "We do not consider the forced and unharmful entry into our airspace by any country as an act of enmity," Defense Minister Adm. Ali Shamkhani told Kuwait's al-Rai al-Aam daily when asked about the possibility of U.S. warplanes entering Iranian airspace.
The signs of fragmentation within the Iraqi regime indicate for the first time that Saddam's senior lieutenants believe the United States and Britain are serious about toppling him.
U.S. and British officials, who have long maintained that a credible threat of overwhelming force to bring down Saddam's regime could destroy his reign of fear and prompt senior lieutenants to seize power and avert a devastating war.
American officials, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, have recently spoken of Iraqis eliminating Saddam themselves, either through assassination or by sending him into exile.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said last week: "The cost of a one-way ticket is substantially less than [the cost of war]. The cost of one bullet, if the Iraqi people take it on themselves, is substantially less than that."
Exiled Iraqis have been reporting for weeks that members of the regime have been trying to build relations with the opposition.
Mr. al-Awi said the INA, a group formed by former members of the ruling Ba'ath party, had seen a surge of interest from senior members of the regime.
"We have been getting approaches for the past two or three months, but the trend is increasing. Those contacting us come from Saddam's inner circle," he said.
"Some have defected, while others have been asked to stay to help us from inside. We cannot say much about the defectors at the moment, but some may speak after they have been debriefed."
A senior Kurdish source, meanwhile, said members of Saddam's own al-Majid clan have been in contact with Iraqi opposition groups, in addition to neighboring and Western governments.
"Saddam's family is crumbling. His inner circle is making contacts all over the place, including with us," said one Kurdish official.
Nevertheless, Iraqi officials maintained publicly yesterday that the country will fight if necessary.
"We are not warmongers. We do not want war and we do not wish it to happen," said Izzat Ibrahim, the vice chairman of Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council, speaking in the city of Kirkuk 160 miles north of Baghdad.
"But if it is imposed on us, we will fight, God willing, a great fight in defense of principles and values," he was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri arrived in the United Arab Emirates yesterday, the latest stop in a tour of the strategic Persian Gulf Arab region aimed at staving off any U.S. military strike.

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