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Could War Have Been Avoided?

Aired November 6, 2003 - 17:00:00   ET


JONATHAN MANN, CNN HOST: What if there had been a way to avoid the war with Iraq? A middleman approached Washington with an offer. The United States never really pursued it.
Hello and welcome.

The United States went to war to topple Saddam Hussein, arguing its intelligence proved that Iraq was stockpiling the deadliest weapons known to man. None of those weapons has been found, and now U.S. intelligence is facing another set of allegations, that an influential American was approached by Iraqi officials with a potential peace deal, but the offer to negotiate was turned down by the CIA.

A Lebanese-American businessman says he carried a desperate last minute offer from Iraqis and he brought it to an insider among the men and women who planned the war.

On our program today, an odd little what if.

What we know so far revolves around several meetings involving a number of people. The first is Imad Hage, the businessman, a man with good contacts in several developing nations and Washington as well. We'll hear from him in a moment.

The second was his highest level contact in the United States, Richard Perle. Perle is well-known around Washington, a member of the Defense Policy Advisory Board that assists planning at the Pentagon. He was traveling and unable to talk to us, though he has spoken to other media and confirmed the broad outlines of the story.

Then General Tahir Habbush, Saddam Hussein's chief of Iraqi intelligence, now a fugitive at large, wanted by the U.S. military. Finally, the figure who we're told carried the first message from Baghdad, Hassan al-Obeidi, chief of foreign operations for the Iraqi intelligence service.

Here's how Hage himself told us the story a short while ago when we caught up with him in Beirut.


IMAD HAGE, BUSINESSMAN: Jonathan, during the second part of January of this year, a friend of mine visited me at my office with an Iraqi official who turned out to be the Iraqi director of intelligence by the name of Dr. Hassan Obeidi.

Apparently, the U.S. military buildup, the threat of overwhelming use of force, had achieved its objective. The Iraqis were prepared to make concessions. The guy appeared to be physical distressed, psychologically distressed. He started talking about, stating that he didn't stand why the United States was going to confront Iraqi or was targeting Iraq while Iraq wanted to cooperate with the United States, and that the Iraqis wanted to help the United States in its war against terrorism.

MANN: And that was the first meeting. How many meetings were there? Where were they? And what was the final result?

HAGE: Well, during that specific meeting, this gentleman, Dr. Obeidi, because of his physical condition, he would collapse and I had to summon a doctor to assist him and then he went on to specifically plead for Iraq's case.

He stated that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction and that Iraq was willing to cooperate with the United States vis--vis its war against terrorism and that the United States in the past had confronted those sponsoring terrorism or was willing to give up, to surrender (UNINTELLIGIBLE), a guy apparently who turned out to be responsible for the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1994, in addition to a few other concessions.

After feeling a little better, he had left. My Lebanese friend eventually asked me if I would go with him to Iraq because the concessions the Iraqis were prepared to make would be appealing to the United States and could help avert war.

I gave it good thought and then I thought it might be the right thing to do, just to go and listen. That's what I did. I went there and I met a gentleman by the name of Tahir Jail Habbush, who eventually turned out to be the director general of the security agencies in Iraq, who reiterated the facts that were conveyed to me by Dr. Obeidi, mainly the fact that we don't understand why the United States wants to go to war with Iraq, that Iraq does not wish a confrontation with the United States, that they no longer possessed weapons of mass destruction, that they will cooperate with the United States vis--vis any Middle East peace plan that might be upcoming.

And as far as the weapons of mass destruction, they wanted to show good faith. That's what they indicated at the time, that they welcome the 1,000 or 2,000 FBI agents or other scientists to come an search Iraq.

MANN: Is there any reason that you had to believe that these men (1) were serious and (2) if they were serious, that they represented the Iraqi government, that they weren't just acting on their own?

HAGE: Well, that's a good question, Jonathan.

I think the number of visits that eventually this Mr. Obeidi paid me in Beirut totaled I think around four or five visits, the defeated mood that he was in and the repetition of the same things by Obeidi and the nature of the concessions they were talking about led me to believe that these guys cannot be talking about such concessions of this magnitude without really talking to some higher ups.

Given Jalil Habbush's ranking at the time, and he ranked high up there, I had reasons to believe that this is something that should be communicated to the Bush administration or people at the Pentagon.

MANN: So who specifically did you tell within the Bush administration?

HAGE: I conveyed these facts to Richard Perle and to a colleague of mine by the name of Mike Maloof (ph), at the Pentagon, who in turn conveyed them to higher ups at the Pentagon.

MANN: And what happened?

HAGE: I waited for a response. Mr. Richard Perle at the time was coming to London and I had also some business to take care of in London. I met with him in London. We went over the points discussed, and I thought that I wanted to step out of this and some U.S. officials should meet with these guys. Their concessions seemed, you know, genuine. And that they should find that out for themselves.

Richard was willing to meet with Iraqis, but he said that he had to get approval from higher ups in Washington, and that when he went to Washington, he would get back to me.

And a few days later, I had spoken with Richard and my friend at the Pentagon and the answer was that he could not get approval for this mission.

MANN: Now, you say that to you the Iraqis seemed serious about their offer. Did the Americans you communicated with seem serious about receiving it? Or did they treat it lightly?

HAGE: I'm not in a position really to render judgment as to what U.S. officials' mood was at the time, but I know at least from my meeting with Mr. Perle that the fact that he was willing to take back this information to Washington and/or to the administration and try to get some approval, it would indicate that it was taken seriously by him.

MANN: Not, though, elsewhere in the administration, as you now know.

Let me ask you how you feel about what you're hearing, because what the administration has essentially been saying is that it received all kinds of strange communications from all kinds of sources. The one that you brought to them was just one of many. None of them seemed serious. And that the Iraqis had ample opportunity to speak to the United States openly, to establish diplomatic channels. They couldn't understand why such broad, sweeping, and to their minds suspicious offers would come from such a strange source.

MANN: That might be the case, Jonathan, I mean, given the nature of the United States' dealings with Saddam Hussein. They had every reason to be suspicious of the intentions of Saddam Hussein.

But given the facts that were available to me at the time, I thought it was only right to convey it to people and it was up to them to decide what they do with this information.


MANN: Imad Hage's remarks have been widely reported in the United States and the Bush administration is not explicitly publicly denying them, but it does point out that Saddam Hussein's regime had a history of lying and that the United States, it says, did everything it could to avoid war.


SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECY.: We exhausted every legitimate and credible opportunity to resolve the world's differences with Saddam Hussein in a peaceful way. If there were a credible and legitimate opportunity to resolve it peacefully, we would have pursued it.

But keep in mind, the bottom line here: Saddam Hussein's unwillingness and his failure to comply after 12 years and some 17 Security Council resolutions from the United Nations, including one final opportunity, was the reason that the coalition was forced to act and bring Iraq into compliance.


MANN: White house spokesman Scott McClellan.

We take a break. When we come back, more on the offer that never went anywhere.

Stay with us.



ARI FLEISCHER, FMR. WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECY.: What you are seeing is the president of the United States pursued diplomacy to its fullest. This president would very much like to have this matter settled through peace and diplomacy, and he is taking every step that he can think is helpful and wise to do.

MANN (voice-over): The White House was making a very public effort back in March to avoid the war. There were last ditch negotiations at the United Nations, ultimatums from Washington, and talk of a coalition of the willing if the ultimatums weren't met. But there was no mention of Imad al-Hage and the deal he was offering.


Welcome back.

As we all know now, the offer went nowhere, and there was at least one other offer, apparently that administration officials deemed more serious. Still, it's another example of what critics say was the administration's failure to take any opportunity to avoid the war.

For more on this story, we're joined now by James Risen who has reported it most fully on the front page of "The New York Times" on this day and in the "International Herald Tribune."

Thanks so much for being with us.

What do you make of all of this?

JAMES RISEN, "NEW YORK TIMES": Well, I just think, first of all, it's a great yarn. It's a really interesting story and I think it sheds a lot of light on how the world really works, especially in the Middle East.

I think there is a real cultural difference that is exposed here. I think in the Arab capitals, there is still a believe that back channels and informal channels are the way to go if you really want to get a message across to another capital, and I think there's a lack of understanding, at least among some people, about how highly structured and formalized the bureaucracy is in Washington and how suspect back channels are taken here.

You know, in the Cuban Missile Crisis 40 years ago, an NBC newsman got involved in a back channel with a Soviet diplomat that really helped solve one of the knottiest problems in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and that was a back channel that today I'm not sure could work in Washington, because Washington has become so highly formalized.

MANN: One of the questions that Washington would have been asking, and certainly we can ask now, is whether in fact there was a channel, whether there really was any real tie between this offer and people in Baghdad in a position to honor and make it.

The two names that are in your report that we're all learning about for the first time, General Habbush or Hassan al-Obeidi, were they in a position to actually be serious representatives of Saddam Hussein's thinking?

RISEN: Yes, I believe they are.

Tahir Jalil Habbush was chief of the Iraqi intelligence service. He was No. 16 on the U.S. most wanted list of Iraqi leaders. He was clearly very close to Saddam Hussein.

I was told by several sources that I believe are credible that Hassan al-Obeidi, who was chief of the foreign operations of the Mukarbarat (ph) and worked under Habbush, had been assigned by Saddam to reach out and make foreign contacts in the months before the war.

And so I believe one of those contacts was with Imad Hage.

MANN: So clearly you think this started high up in the Iraqi government. How high did it get in the U.S. government? Did President Bush ever hear about this offer?

RISEN: We don't know that for a fact, but I do know that Imad Hage met personally with Richard Perle in London and Richard Perle has confirmed that and also said that he then contacted Washington to see if he had authorization to meet with Habbush, and he says he called the CIA. He didn't say who he called at the CIA, and that the response was there was no interest because there had been some other contacts with the Iraqis.

U.S. intelligence officials say that in fact there was an attempt to arrange a meeting with Habbush in Morocco and that there was some kind of meeting in Rome in March between the CIA and an Iraqi representative.

Interesting to me is the fact that Imad Hage was told by Habbush about the attempt to arrange a meeting in Morocco and about the meeting in Rome, which to me gave great credibility to what Mr. Hage was telling me. The fact that the CIA then confirmed both facts.

MANN: Now, immediately, some people hearing this story will believe that people in the Bush administration just wanted to go to war, that they wouldn't even take this kind of offer seriously under any conditions. Do you think there's anything to that, according to what you've been able to learn?

RISEN: Well, I can't offer my personal opinion about that. All I can say is I don't believe that -- I believe that this was passed on to people, both in the Pentagon and in the CIA, at some level, and that it clearly was not taken seriously at the highest levels of the Bush administration.

MANN: James Risen of "The New York Times" and "International Herald Tribune," thanks so much for talking with us.

RISEN: Sure.

MANN: We take another break. When we come back we'll talk about back channels.

Stay with us for that.


MANN: Welcome back.

The idea of a back channel is hardly a new one, but in Iraq's case, was it the kind of thing anyone in Washington should have taken seriously?

Joining us now, former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack, now of the Saban Center of the Brookings Institution.

You know the way they think in Washington. Did they make a big mistake if indeed, as we've been told, they sent away Imad Hage's offer?

KEN POLLACK, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: No. Honestly, Jonathan -- look, let me start by saying I am a Democrat. If I thought the Bush administration had acted wrongly or hypocritically, I'd be the first one to say it.

I also did two tours at the NSC, so I've been involved in exactly these kind of issues. And the simple fact is, I can find nothing wrong with what the Bush administration did. I think they acted exactly properly.

You need to remember, the Iraqis all through the 1990's were throwing all kinds of stuff at the U.S. government. This is not the first operation like this that the U.S. government has ever seen. They were constantly trying to approach first the first Bush administration, then the Clinton administration, and the second Bush administration with these back channel offers of cutting a deal; "If you'll lift the sanctions, we'll do X, Y and Z for you. If you'll stop the bombing, we'll do X, Y and Z for you."

And what we found out in every case was that the Iraqis were simply looking to embarrass the United States government.

Most of the Middle East believed that the United States was just trying to cut a deal, and you lose that one of the most important things that Imad Hage came, supposedly, from the Iraqis bearing was this offer to give the United States concessional oil deals. Well, if it came out that that was what the Iraqis had offered, if the rest of the Middle East heard that, they would have abandoned the United States in a heartbeat.

This is not a good deal to make. There's no indication that the Iraqi government was actually behind it or that they would have honored the terms if they even were behind it.

MANN: What would the Iraqi government have done, to your mind, if indeed at the last minute they had a change of heart? Clearly, Imad Hage is suggesting that that was the rationale behind the offer that he was conveying, that at the very last minute they did want to cut a deal? Could they have cut a deal in public?

POLLACK: Yes. In fact, that's what they should have done, and believe me, they are fully capable of doing that. We've seen the Iraqis, or had seen the Iraqi government in the past publicly come forward with a last minute set of concessions. They could have worked through an intermediary.

This, of course, is exactly what they did in the first Gulf War. They tried at the end of the U.S. air campaign to find their way out of things, so they went to the Russians, and they had the Russians, you'll remember, you had Genny Primakov (ph) went to Moscow, Mikhail Gorbachev, and announce that Saddam was willing to accept a withdrawal on certain conditions.

Now at that time, the United States government decided that the conditions were inadequate and they weren't going to live by them, but that was the kind of a moment where they actually got real traction.

This idea that you use your intelligence service to contact the United States through a third party that the United States had never heard of before who couldn't possibly establish the bona fides before, this was no way to conduct diplomacy, and the Iraqis knew it.

MANN: Why do you think we're hearing about this now? It's been suggested to me that some people in Washington may be trying to embarrass the CIA. Can you figure out why this is suddenly in the headlines?

POLLACK: It is possible that this is someone trying to embarrass the CIA. I tend to doubt that. I think that it is in papers now because someone spoke to a reporter, probably to James Risen, and you heard you James say, it's an interesting yarn.

MANN: Now, you are saying this is not true. A lot of people listening to your remarks and to all of this will add it all up and think it's not true. How many people are likely to believe it? How damaging is this story going to be for the administration say in the Arab world?

POLLACK: Well, in the Arab world, I think it would have been far more damaging for the administration if they had actually accepted the deal.

Again, I have no expectation that the Iraqi government would have made good on any of the terms if they had even been behind the offer to begin with. This is what we have seen with Saddam Hussein's regime is he'll make all kinds of agreements and then renege on them, and the problem with it then is that once the deal came out, it would have been enormously embarrassing to the United States.

This time around, yes, you will have some people say, "See, I told you that there was a deal in the works," and some people will even come up with some kind of convoluted conspiracy theory to suggest that maybe there still was a deal, that the United States purposely allowed Saddam Hussein to get away and not to kill him when he was in Baghdad. But in truth, Jonathan, I think most of the Arab world will look at this and say, "All right, the Iraqis reached out to the Americans and the Americans turned them down."

MANN: You eluded to this in passing, and others have eluded to it vaguely, but the idea that there were other more serious operations underway to try to avert the war, whether through Egypt or France or Russia.

POLLACK: Exactly. There were a number of countries out there, Arab and European, who were trying very hard to find some kind of a compromise solution to the situation. And they were in close contact with the Iraqis. In particular, the French, the Russians and you mentioned also the Egyptians.

The Egyptians were never a great option because, truth to tell, Hosni Mubarak hates Saddam Hussein, and Saddam doesn't much care for Hosni Mubarak. But obviously the Iraqis had very good relations with both the French and the Russians. The French and Russians were important partners of the United States, and they were working very hard to come up with a solution that would actually meet the United States' terms.

Ultimately, however, they couldn't do so because it was clear at the end of the day, Saddam never really believed that the United States would go to war and this is something that has emerged from the debriefings of senior Iraqi officials that we're hearing now. And also because Saddam was never willing to do what the Bush administration ultimately wanted, and I think a part of it was that the Bush administration really just wanted Saddam Hussein out of power.

MANN: The bottom line on this is the story is probably not true to your way of thinking because Saddam Hussein wouldn't have put forward an offer, because he was still ready to bluff his way if necessary, but to face down the United States.

POLLACK: Exactly. I mean, again, what we're hearing from all of the senior Iraqi officials was that Saddam just didn't think that the United States would really go to war, that at some point in time we would lose the courage, we wouldn't be willing to carry through with it. That's why, of course, the Iraqis really didn't make the kind of military preparations that Saddam was claiming that they would make. That's why the war unfolded the way that it did.

And for all of those reasons, it doesn't seem that Saddam was ever going to be willing to make the kind of concessions that would have bought off any U.S. regime, let alone the Bush administration, which was determined to simply remove him from power.

MANN: Kenneth Pollack, research director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, thank you so much for being with us, once again.

POLLACK: My pleasure, Jonathan.

MANN: That's INSIGHT for this day. I'm Jonathan Mann. The news continues.



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