- The Washington Times - Friday, January 10, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 9 (UPI) — As combat-ready American soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines continue to pour into the Persian Gulf area, readying for a possible invasion of Iraq, the door to a peaceful solution of the Mesopotamian crisis remains somewhat ajar.

But whether the United Nations weapons inspectors directed by Hans Blix, or those of the International Atomic Energy Agency under the direction of Mohamed El Baradei discover any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, it appears as though the Bush Administration is set on imposing a regime change in Iraq.

The difference of opinion between the United Nations and the United States came to light on Thursday, as Blix and El Baradei delivered their interim report to the U.N. Security Council in New York. Commenting to a gaggle of media reporters gathered in the U.N. lobby, Blix said his inspection teams prodding for nuclear, biological or chemical weapons in Iraq since Nov. 27 had found no evidence of any WMD yet in Iraq's arsenal, although Iraq had not been as cooperative as it should have. But, said Blix, "There is no smoking gun."

"You can't see the smoke of a hidden gun," fired back White House spokesman, Ari Fleisher only minutes later.

Translated from political parlance, this means that the Bush White House believes Iraq is still hiding away a gun or two in that vast country, but that U.N. inspectors have been unable to discover any of them so far.

The United States, for its part, claims to be in possession of intelligence which it has not yet shared with the U.N. monitoring and verification teams. The Bush administration fears that releasing this sensitive information to the U.N. would jeopardize its super-secretive sources. Secretary of State Colin Powell said on Wednesday the United States "was holding back some of its most sensitive information."

The administration, however, continues to pressure Baghdad. "Iraq has failed the test, in the view of the Bush White House," reported CNN, and the White House claimed this was a deliberate attempt to deceive the inspectors.

In other words, Saddam must go. So does that mean the United States and Iraq are set on a collision course, bound for an inevitable war as soon as the troop build-up reaches levels with which the Pentagon feels comfortable?

"There is only one way out," wrote Khaled Al-Dahkil in the London-based al-Hayat newspaper on Dec. 29. The way out, writes the Saudi journalist, is "Saddam's retreat with other leaders of his regime." But don't just pop those champagne bottles left over from your new year's celebration, because, continues the writer, "this is inconceivable."

Inconceivable? Well, not if the rest of the Arab world put their collective minds and political clout to it, got their act together and convinced the Iraqi leader that the chips are indeed down and that he could save himself and his people much hardship, thousands of deaths and avoid an unwinnable war that would inflict horrendous devastation on Iraq.

In view of the impending invasion of Iraq, this is the opportune moment for the leaders of the other 21 members of the Arab League to convene in an emergency session, form a delegation and deliver their message — in no uncertain terms — to Saddam Hussein that he should go.

Some analysts believe the Saudis have already approached Saddam with a proposal that he should step down, and a group of Egyptian intellectuals voiced their opinion along similar lines. But that is not likely to greatly influence the Iraqi leader. Nor, unfortunately, is the Arab League about to adopt such an unprecedented stand.

But if by some miracle the Arab League should find the courage to undertake such a mission, members should point out to Saddam that stepping down from power must not be seen as a disgrace. Rather, it must be portrayed as the ultimate sacrifice to save his nation unnecessary bloodshed. Other dictators have followed that route before; the shah of Iran left his Peacock throne in Tehran, Ferdinand Marcos and wife Imelda abandoned power along with hundreds of pairs of shoes in their palace in the Philippines, and Idi Amin Dada of Uganda left Africa to live out his days in Saudi Arabia.

Rumors are already circulating around the Middle East that Saddam has been funneling millions of dollars to Col. Moammar Gadhafi, hoping to be allowed to finish his days in exile in Libya. This is unlikely, given the unreliability and rapid mood swings of the Libyan leader. A more realistic speculation that has recently surfaced is that Saddam has been offered the possibility of moving to Russia, a country with which Iraq maintains cordial relations.

However, several Middle East analysts believe that diplomacy alone will never convince Baghdad's strongman to leave of his own accord, which is why the Pentagon is continuing its troop buildup in the area, and will continue to do so until about a quarter of million allied troops are encamped on Saddam's doorstep. Still, Saddam, many believe, will go down with a sword — the one you so often see him brandishing on television — in his hand. Alas, he will take a lot of innocent lives with him when he goes.

(Claude Salhani is a senior editor at UPI. Comments may be sent to [email protected]).

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