ASHINGTON, Nov. 5 � As American
soldiers massed on the Iraqi border in March and diplomats argued
about war, an influential adviser to the Pentagon received a secret
message from a Lebanese-American businessman: Saddam Hussein wanted
to make a deal.
Iraqi officials, including the chief of the Iraqi Intelligence
Service, had told the businessman that they wanted Washington to
know that Iraq no longer had weapons of mass destruction, and they
offered to allow American troops and experts to conduct a search.
The businessman said in an interview that the Iraqis also offered to
hand over a man accused of being involved in the World Trade Center
bombing in 1993 who was being held in Baghdad. At one point, he
said, the Iraqis pledged to hold elections.
The messages from Baghdad, first relayed in February to an
analyst in the office of Douglas J. Feith, the under secretary of
defense for policy and planning, were part of an attempt by Iraqi
intelligence officers to open last-ditch negotiations with the Bush
administration through a clandestine communications channel,
according to people involved.
The efforts were portrayed by Iraqi officials as having the
approval of President Saddam Hussein, according to interviews and
The overtures, after a decade of evasions and deceptions by Iraq,
were ultimately rebuffed. But the messages raised enough interest
that in early March, Richard N. Perle, an influential adviser to top
Pentagon officials, met in London with the Lebanese-American
businessman, Imad Hage.
According to both men, Mr. Hage laid out the Iraqis' position to
Mr. Perle, and he pressed the Iraqi request for a direct meeting
with Mr. Perle or another representative of the United States.
"I was dubious that this would work," said Mr. Perle, widely
recognized as an intellectual architect of the Bush administration's
hawkish policy toward Iraq, "but I agreed to talk to people in
Mr. Perle said he sought authorization from C.I.A. officials to
meet with the Iraqis, but the officials told him they did not want
to pursue this channel, and they indicated they had already engaged
in separate contacts with Baghdad. Mr. Perle said, "The message was,
`Tell them that we will see them in Baghdad.' "
A senior United States intelligence official said this was one of
several contacts with Iraqis or with people who said they were
trying to broker meetings on their behalf. "These signals came via a
broad range of foreign intelligence services, other governments,
third parties, charlatans and independent actors," said the
official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Every lead that
was at all plausible, and some that weren't, were followed up."
There were a variety of efforts, both public and discreet, to
avert a war in Iraq, but Mr. Hage's back channel appears to have
been a final attempt by Mr. Hussein's government to reach American
In interviews in Beirut, Mr. Hage said the Iraqis appeared
intimidated by the American military threat. "The Iraqis were
finally taking it seriously," he said, "and they wanted to talk, and
they offered things they never would have offered if the build-up
Mr. Perle said he found it "puzzling" that the Iraqis would have
used such complicated contacts to communicate "a quite astonishing
proposal" to the administration.
But former American intelligence officers with extensive
experience in the Middle East say many Arab leaders have
traditionally placed a high value on secret communications, though
such informal arrangements are sometimes considered suspect in
The activity in this back channel, detailed in interviews and in
documents obtained by The New York Times, appears to show an
increasingly frantic Iraqi regime trying to find room to maneuver as
the enemy closes in. It also provides a rare glimpse into a
subterranean world of international networking.
The key link in the network was Imad Hage, who has spent much of
his life straddling two worlds. Mr. Hage, a Maronite Christian who
was born in Beirut in 1956, fled Lebanon in 1976 after the civil war
began there. He ended up in the United States, where he went to
college and became a citizen.