- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 4, 2003

Iraq's neighbors, desperate to avoid a U.S.-led military strike against Baghdad, have stepped up efforts to persuade Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to step down voluntarily and leave the country.

Newspapers in the region are rife with speculation about a deal to depose Saddam, and Russia, Belarus and Iran have officially denied that they are considering providing the dictator with a safe harbor should he accept asylum outside Iraq.

"There are countries among the Arab nations that would fervently support such a way out," Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis confirmed in an interview on Turkish television yesterday.

Turkey, which is itself ambivalent about war with Iraq, considers an exile deal "a viable formula," Mr. Yakis said.

Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal talked up the exile plan during a diplomatic tour of the region last week. He hinted that Iraq's Arab neighbors would push for a nonmilitary end to the standoff, even if the United Nations votes at the end of this month to confirm that Iraq has defied an ultimatum to disarm.

"Even if the Security Council issues a unanimous decision to attack Iraq, we hope a chance will be given to the Arab states to find a political solution to this issue," the Saudi foreign minister said during a visit to Sudan.

Qatar, which reportedly floated an exit strategy for Saddam in August, is now pressing for an emergency meeting of the 22-nation Arab League, which many believe would have the exile question as its top agenda item.

Arab diplomats say the question of where to place Saddam is far less pressing than the question of whether he will voluntarily cede power. An Iraqi minister who suggested Saddam at least pretend to consider an Iranian demand to resign during their 1980s war was summarily shot.

If Saddam ever agreed to leave, "we'll find a place for him," one Arab diplomat said yesterday. "That wouldn't be the problem."

The Bush administration has walked a fine line on the question of exile. The ouster of Saddam and his top circle could achieve the "regime change" President Bush has demanded, but does not address the question of Iraq's suspected chemical, biological and nuclear weapons arsenal, or of how much of the current Iraqi power structure would remain in place.

Many supporters of military action also see war as a chance to rewrite power relations in the Middle East and create a democratic, pro-Western government in a key Middle Eastern state. The Bush administration has also invested heavily in a collection of Iraqi exile groups now planning their own post-Saddam state.

A negotiated exit for Saddam could short-circuit both strategic goals.

Both Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell have discussed the idea of ousting Saddam, but State Department spokesman Richard Boucher on Thursday said he was "not aware of any active efforts to promote such proposals."

Mr. Boucher said Saddam's record suggested strongly he had no intention of relinquishing power, but he added, "He has the option. He ought to take it."

The region's rumor mill has been working overtime in recent days about a possible Saddam exile.

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi yesterday dismissed as "groundless rumors" an account in the newspaper Entekhab that he had been told by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer that the United States and Russia had agreed on the outlines of a "bloodless coup" to remove Saddam from power.

And a spokeswoman for Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has opposed a military strike against Iraq, earlier this week denied British press reports that the former Soviet republic had made an offer to provide asylum for Saddam.

The official Iraqi press has not commented on the exile idea, but a leading Baghdad newspaper said the Bush administration's recent professions that it could support a peaceful end to the crisis were an attempt to ease opposition to the U.S. policy.

"The truth of the matter is that Bush wanted to cool down the climate after the rise of temperature of global public anger over his threats and preparations for aggression against Iraq," the state-run Al-Iraq newspaper said in a front-page editorial yesterday.

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