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The Struggle for Iraq

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. Graphic: Seeking a Back Channel: The Players

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DIPLOMACY

Iraq Said to Have Tried to Reach Last-Minute Deal to Avert War

By JAMES RISEN

Published: November 6, 2003

WASHINGTON, 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.

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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 documents.

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 Washington."

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 officials.

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 hadn't occurred."

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 Washington.

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.


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