- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 8, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 7 (UPI) — Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal has officially denied any Saudi or Arab initiative, effort or contacts to convince President Saddam Hussein to step down or relinquish power for the sake of a peaceful settlement to the crisis over the Iraqi leader's efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

And, in fact, most analysts, even in the West, are giving long odds that any such attempts might work. It hasn't stopped the rumors, however.

Prince Saud's comment came at a news conference Monday as the media throughout the Middle East has been talking for days about Arab leaders seeking a way to persuade Saddam Hussein to go into comfortable exile and so avoid the United States using its military power to bring about regime change in Baghdad.

"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 last week.

Indeed, Prince Saud, in a recent tour of the region, is believed to have advocated an effort to achieve such a solution to the crisis.

He hinted that Iraq's Arab neighbors would seek a non-military end to the U.S.-Iraqi standoff, even if the U.N. Security Council decides Iraq has defied an ultimatum to disarm. The council is to meet Jan. 27 to hear the Iraq inspectors' report.

Every country that borders Iraq — Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey — as well as Egypt, is terrified of the destabilizing effect a forced change would have on its own domestic political arrangements.

The exception may be Kuwait, which would welcome a new leadership in Baghdad it could expect to renounce the long-standing, if intermittent, claim to the oil-endowed emirate as Iraq's 19th province. The claim originated in the fact that what is now independent Kuwait was formerly part of the Ottoman province of Basra, which was joined with those of Baghdad and Mosul to create the Iraqi state in the wake of World War I.

The idea that by going into exile Saddam could spare Iraq and the region the material and political costs of war was broached by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last September when he said such a decision by Saddam would help avoid U.S. military intervention in Iraq.

Rumsfeld reiterated the suggestion as recently as Tuesday, telling reporters at a regular press briefing that "the first choice (for resolving the Iraqi situation) would be that Saddam Hussein would pick up and leave the country tonight. That would be nice for everybody."

The U.S. State Department has also chimed in: Saddam should either "change his ways or change his venue," as spokesman Richard Boucher put it last Thursday. "The certainty of coalition forces prevailing if it comes to military action should make him consider any other options he might have."

Boucher, like Prince Saud, also said he was not aware of any activity under way to negotiate an exile option for the Iraqi President.

But as he spoke Turkey's new prime minister, Abdullah Gul, was holding talks in Jordan with King Abdullah II about the U.S.-Iraqi situation. Western analysts said that it was likely that how to get Saddam to agree to go into exile was on the agenda.

At the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Patrick Clawson commented that none of the region's leaders would be likely to want to approach Saddam directly and would be looking for an intermediary. Indeed, he was skeptical that the idea of Saddam going into voluntary exile would come to anything, he added.

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