Would Saddam Simply Leave?

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BROOKS KRAFT/CORBIS FOR TIME

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, leaves the White House after meeting with President Bush

The first time anyone was rumored to have broached directly the subject of a nice, quiet exile for Saddam Hussein was back in August, when stories circulated that a member of the Qatari royal family had ventured to Baghdad to see whether there was some way to avert a war by offering Saddam a way out — perhaps a plush retirement in a place like Saudi Arabia, where deposed despot Idi Amin enjoys fishing and playing his accordion. In Arab press accounts, Saddam was said to have angrily sent the envoy packing, and since then both sides have denied that any such overture ever happened. Who, indeed, would dare mention such a fate for the Butcher of Baghdad?

Lots of people, it turns out, as war pressures grow. The Saudis have now taken the initiative in putting together a deal that leaves the door open for Saddam to accept exile but meanwhile is aimed at encouraging his generals to oust him if he doesn't. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal has discussed scenarios with Arab and European leaders and last week sat down with President George W. Bush in Washington. Though Bush's aides had already publicly embraced the option, the President for the first time came on board, declaring that should Saddam Hussein "choose to leave the country, along with a lot of the other henchmen who have tortured the Iraqi people, we would welcome that, of course... The use of military troops is my last choice, not my first."


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It's no wonder this scenario is growing in popularity as the deadline for war approaches. If Saddam were to accept exile, Iraq would be spared the devastation of war and America the risks and blame for it. Saudi Arabia would show the U.S., still aggrieved by the fact that most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi, how helpful it can be and would demonstrate to its own people its devotion to protecting a fellow Arab state from war. Arab leaders would avoid upheaval in a region where chaos has a way of spreading. The U.N.'s resolve would be rewarded at a bargain price. It's true that President Bush would sacrifice some of the strategic and moral logic of his war on terrorism if he let Saddam walk away unaccountable, especially if Saddam continued to make mischief from afar. But whatever the risks of compromise, the risks of war may be greater, so the White House isn't likely to rule out some kind of deal.

Saddam is another story. A man who likens himself to Nebuchadnezzar and Saladin and who first killed someone as a teenager and has ruthlessly pursued power ever since probably won't simply quit now, say intelligence analysts. The analysts are virtually unanimous in their assessment that Saddam will not go standing up. For one thing, it's his power that has kept him alive. Saddam sleeps in a different bed every night, has body doubles and food tasters, all for good reason. Iraqi diplomats say Saddam is convinced that Bush wants him dead, and so any exile scenario would have to assure him that he would never find himself in the sights of a Predator drone or a war-crimes tribunal. Even with a gun pointed at his head, says a French official, "it's difficult to imagine Saddam throwing up his arms, saying 'All right, I'll go,' and agreeing to live a life of fear, distrust and, who knows, maybe betrayal, prison and humiliation in exile."

Still, it can't be ruled out. Gerrold Post, the CIA's former profiler of Saddam, thinks that voluntary exile is unlikely but notes that the Iraqi leader is "not a martyr but a quintessential survivor. It's possible he could view exile as a temporary retreat, from which he could return to power." Last month Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told an Israeli newspaper that during the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam had packed his bags and was preparing to flee to Libya or Eritrea, but changed his mind after concluding his life was not in danger.

The Saudi plan has a more central, perhaps more plausible goal than getting Saddam to slink away. It involves persuading the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution granting amnesty to Iraqi officials who agree to cooperate with the U.N. The idea is that this would separate Saddam and the top tier of the ruling Baath Party from others in the regime who might be persuaded to save themselves and their country by overthrowing Saddam. The resolution would be designed to open a window just before a U.S. invasion began so that an Arab delegation would have a chance to direct the Iraqi generals to one last fire escape. A coup might seem unlikely, given Saddam's record of airtight personal security, but the hot breath of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division next door in Kuwait may have changed the climate in Iraq. "You'd be surprised how quickly Iraqi loyalties can change," says an Arab diplomat.

The U.S. has long cherished the prospect of a coup by Saddam's generals. "This way, he'd get what he deserved," a senior Pentagon official says. "More important, he'd get it at the hands of his own people." The U.S. tried to encourage a putsch by sending e-mails to members of Saddam's inner circle, including military officers. The regime responded by blocking the Iraq server so that no one could receive any messages. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced his future press conferences will be beamed into Iraq by Commando Solo, a modified cargo plane now operating along Iraq's borders.

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