US offers immunity to Saddam

The United States last night offered Saddam Hussein immunity from prosecution if his departure from Baghdad would avert war. With only seven days to go before weapons inspectors deliver their crucial report to the UN security council, Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary and one of the Bush administration’s leading hawks, dangled the prospect of a peaceful way out, despite the massive military build-up.

“If to avoid a war,” Rumsfeld said in a TV interview, “I would ...
recommend that some provision be made so that the senior leadership in that country [Iraq] and their families could be provided haven in some other country.”

Hours later, in what appeared to be a series of choreographed interviews, his more doveish rival in the US administration, Colin Powell, backed his remarks. Asked about a reported Saudi initiative to grant amnesty to senior Iraqi leaders, he said: “I would encourage Saddam Hussein, if he is getting any messages of this kind, to listen.”

The hints from Washington added weight to an Arab initiative, backed by Saudi Arabia and others, that would urge the Iraqi leader to go into exile.

Even if the US granted President Saddam immunity from prosecution, the viability of the Arab plan would depend on his willingness to give up power, something many believe he would never contemplate. Allowing the Iraqi leader to avoid a trial for alleged war crimes might also prove controversial. In London, the Foreign Office maintained its view that the main issue was disarming Iraq rather than removing President Saddam.

“The key issue is for Iraq to comply with its international obligations whatever group of people forms its leadership,” a representative said.

Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector, last night began high-level meetings in Baghdad, saying: “We do not think that war is inevitable. We think that the inspection process that we are conducting is the peaceful alternative.”

Rumsfeld piled the pressure on the Iraqi regime by saying that Washington would know “in a matter of weeks, not in months or years” whether Iraq was “cooperating fully with the inspectors”.

His comment contrasted with remarks by Mohammed El Baradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Authority, who told the Guardian that UN monitors needed “a few more months”.

El Baradei and Blix have to report back to the UN by January 27, a deadline imposed by a security council resolution but whose significance is disputed by its five permanent members.

Last night they had talks with President Saddam’s scientific adviser, Amir al-Saadi, and General Hussam Mohammad Amin, head of Iraq’s national monitoring directorate.

“We are having good, constructive meetings,” El Baradei told reporters. “I think [the Iraqis] have said that there are still certain areas where they are ready to provide more information,” he added. “I think that in other areas they said they are ready to reconsider their position.”

However, faced with mounting pressure from the US and Britain to come up with hard evidence to prove President Saddam has been lying about nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, Blix insisted: “It requires comprehensive inspections and it requires a very active Iraqi cooperation.”

He earlier accused the Iraqi authorities of playing “a cheap game of chess”. He was speaking after being forced to cancel inspections in northern Iraq’s “no-fly” zone. The Iraqis insisted that UN helicopters had to be escorted by Iraqi ones.

Blix played down the significance of the discovery of 3 000 documents in the home of an Iraqi physicist, Faleh Hassan, last week. The papers, found after a tip-off by western intelligence, were “not evidence of a weapon of mass destruction and are all pre-1990”, Blix said. “We know very well they have dealt [in the past] with laser enrichment.”

Gary Samore, a former proliferation expert at the US national security council, said that using laser technology to separate isotopes to enrich uranium was “very very demanding” and no country had produced it in that way.

Blix said he had no doubt Tony Blair would like to have a peaceful solution through inspections, adding that the prime minister had refused to “commit himself” during talks on Friday to a timetable regarding the monitoring.

Meanwhile, a statement purportedly written by Osama bin Laden urging Muslims to unite against the “crusader coalition” was published yesterday by the London-based Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat.

It said the statement was mailed to the paper from an Islamic source in London with close links to a Pakistan-based Islamic research centre known for its ties to al-Qaeda. - Guardian Unlimited Â

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