TIME Exclusive: The Saudi Initiative Explained

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Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal

Arab leaders realize that their worst nightmare is about to happen. So after years of tolerating Saddam Hussein's aggression and terror, some of them are turning against him. With the Bush administration signaling its intention to fight a new Middle Eastern war, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal is revealing for the first time details of a Saudi proposal that could isolate Saddam, encourage his overthrow and thereby avert the war.

Outlining the initiative in an exclusive TIME interview, Saud said it was aimed at achieving Iraq's compliance with United Nations disarmament resolutions without resorting to a unilateral U.S.-led invasion that could destroy Iraq, destabilize the Middle East and fan anti-Americanism throughout the region.

The initiative would achieve that by keeping the war option in the hands of the U.N. and encouraging the Sunni-dominated government to protect their own interests by cooperating with the U.N., sweeping Saddam aside if he refuses to go along. As the Saudis sees it, the shift in emphasis from threatening the stick of war to offering the carrot of protection stands a better chance of achieving a relatively bloodless transition of power in Baghdad that would win wider acceptance in the Arab world.

Speaking after a week of whirlwind diplomacy, which included talks with President Bush, French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Saud said the initiative could be incorporated into the expected U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force against Saddam's regime. "We have received encouragement and felt a general acceptance of the premises that we have put forward," Saud said. "President Bush was very sympathetic to the objectives." The initiative is expected to be discussed informally Wednesday among permanent members of the U.N. Security Council as Secretary of State Colin Powell presents evidence that Iraq is still concealing weapons of mass destruction.

As first reported by TIME.COM last month, the key mechanism in the Saudi formula is an offer of amnesty to Iraqi officials and military officers who demonstrate their readiness to cooperate with the U.N. by revealing information on arms concealment or by showing other clear signs that they oppose Iraq's non-compliance with U.N. resolutions. Amnesty would be an attractive offer, the Saudis believe, because Iraqi officials are fearful that they may be hunted down and prosecuted for being part of a regime that has used weapons of mass destruction against foreign enemies as well as its own people. Saud insisted that the initiative targets no specific "personalities," yet it is clear that a major aim is to isolate Saddam by giving his military commanders a sweet incentive to cooperate with the U.N. and even overthrow him.

"The best way is to provide amnesty to the government of Iraq, [telling it] to continue to perform its duties to keep order," Saud explained. "Instead of constantly harping, 'If you don't do what we want, we will pursue you,' say the reverse: 'If you do what we want, you will not be pursued, you will secure yourself and your future.' I fail to see how Iraqis wouldn't accept this approach in the face of certain destruction."

"Our idea," Saud added, "is to transform the military effort of the United Nations from a military effort that seeks to occupy, that seeks to inflict pain on Iraq, into an effort that is aimed at guaranteeing the security and territorial integrity of Iraq. The essential part of it is for the Iraqi government to [continue to] be a functioning government, to allow for a peaceful transition."

Shifting the emphasis on protecting rather than attacking Iraqis, Saud hoped, would also help end the split inside the U.N. Security Council by encouraging France, Russia and China to back the resolution authorizing force. "Should conflict come, we think it should be through the United Nations machinery," said Saud. "The way it is going, we see divergence of opinions in the Security Council. That will encourage Saddam Hussein to think, 'If there is division, I can obfuscate and not do anything and get away with it.' And this will lead, as sure as anything, to [U.S.-led] war with Iraq."

Saud rejected criticism that the proposal sought to undermine American war preparations, suggesting that the threat of imminent military attack stood a real chance of changing loyalties in Baghdad. "I can visualize elements of the regime turning away from an order that would jeopardize stability and security of Iraq," he said. "I don't consider that Iraqis are less nationalistic than any other country. Say you are a general and the U.N. says that it will give you protection if you perform your duty. Immediately, once you get that offer, trust in those who are against the implementation of U.N. resolutions is gone."

Although it is impossible to predict how Iraqi generals will react to an amnesty offer, best-case scenarios range from seeing them provide U.N. weapons inspectors with incriminating evidence to toppling Saddam perhaps with U.N. military support. "Call it psychology," Saud explained. "Nobody knows who is his friend or who is his enemy. The people of Iraq don't know if America is coming to steal the oil, to return imperialism in the region, or not. Coming from the UN, the perceptions will change. This is the proposal you bring to those who want to cooperate, to Iraqis who don't want to see their country destroyed, to the people who want to have a peaceful resolution, to the people who don't really want weapons of mass destruction for Iraq but want a country united and on the road to prosperity."

Saud said that the proposal was prompted by concern that the collapse of central order in Iraq could trigger a civil blood bath as well as a regional conflict, perhaps drawing in neighbors like Turkey and Iran. The Saudi initiative is also intent on preventing any war from being a unilateral U.S. action that could inflame Arab nationalist passions and thereby undermine the domestic standing of America's Arab allies, including Saudi Arabia. "My god, the idea of an occupation of Baghdad by the armed forces of the United States is unimaginable," said Saud. "This is the capital of Harun al Rashid, who was negotiating with Charlemagne. This was the flower of Arab civilization. Who is the general who will occupy Baghdad? How would he ever be considered a friend of the Arab world? But the U.S. is not an imperialist power and its record proves that."

Some analysts are skeptical that the Saudi plan can succeed in ousting Saddam, yet Saud said he found understanding for the principles behind it among the leaders of the U.S., France and Britain. "We are all in agreement on several things," he said. "One, that the U.N. should be the body entrusted with the issue. Second, we are all fearful of the consequences of military action that does not take into view the security, territorial integrity and civil order of Iraq. It is not only the French, but the British and the Americans who also accept these elements as being of profound importance for the future of the region."

Saud said Saudi Arabia was also proposing that once a resolution authorizing force against Iraq is adopted, Arab leaders be given a final chance, perhaps armed with a U.N.-endorsed amnesty offer, to encourage Iraqis to ensure their government's compliance with U.S. resolutions before the bombs begin falling.

He said that an Arab position on the Saudi initiative would probably not be agreed until the U.N. Security Council takes its decision. "We [Arab governments] all agree that we have to work for the unity and territorial integrity of Iraq," he said. "We agree Iraq must come clean and show what it has. We all want to do everything that we can to prevent conflict."