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 Monday, 20 January, 2003, 12:12 GMT
Exile for peace: A fair trade?
Saddam Hussein with bodyguards and son
Saddam's inner circle is said to be ready to go

It is not surprising that an exile story has surfaced - it sounds such a simple solution.

Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt are said to be urging the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to leave.

They have reportedly discussed the plan with Turkey which is due to host a regional summit this week.

Saddam Hussein would take with him some of his top henchmen. Their families would go too.

In exchange, there would be no war and no war crimes prosecutions.

The "regime change" wanted by Washington would have been achieved, assuming that Iraq did not simply swap one dictator for another, in which case Washington would not play ball.

'Fair trade'

The Arab press in London is awash with colourful detail. One opposition paper, al-Mutamar, which you would expect to undermine the regime, says that a new captain has been appointed for Saddam's private jet.

Supporter demonstrates with picture of Saddam Hussein
While popular support is strong, Saddam is unlikely to go
The top US hierarchy has swung behind the idea. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said it would be a "fair trade".

The British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw agreed. "It would be unpalatable to see any degree of immunity being offered to the Saddam Hussein regime," he said. "[But] if the alternative is a war - I think most people would swallow hard and accept [it]."

But American and British backing for the proposal does not mean that it will happen.

Supporting a plan to avoid a war makes the Bush administration look less warlike and indeed helps to throw the onus on Saddam Hussein himself to solve this.

Tight grip

The problem is that Saddam Hussein has never shown the slightest inclination to seek exile.

Dictators normally only leave when their internal position becomes untenable.

This happened with the Shah of Iran in 1979 under the impact of the Islamic revolution. Nicolai Ceausescu fled his presidential palace in Romania in 1989 only when the crowds turned hostile.

So far, the Iraqi president has maintained his grip on the country.

Of course, the calculation is that he might reckon that this time he will lose, despite his rhetoric which continues to trumpet a victory over the "modern Mongols".


He is a "survivor", we are told.

That may be true but he is also a man of massive miscalculation.

He made a grab for the Shatt al-Arab waterway in Iran but that led not to a quick coup de main but a war which went on for nearly 10 years.

Kurdish fighter watches Saddam Hussein speech on TV
Saddam continues to make defiant speeches
He invaded Kuwait believing that the United States would turn a blind eye.

One cannot rely on his judgment.

And he is also a fighter.

He made his name when he assassinated opponents as a young man. He secured his position when he ordered others to be executed when he took power.

The nature of the man can be seen in a frightening videotape of him at a meeting of party officials. It shows Saddam Hussein sitting on a stage calmly lighting his pipe in a cloud of smoke while hysterical party members shout their allegiance to him and some are led out to their deaths.

The best hope for such a plan to succeed might lie in those around him.

Going into exile - assuming that a compliant country could be found - would also be a humiliation.

After all he received a full 100% vote of support by the Iraq people in the referendum in October.

Explaining why he is abandoning such ardent supporters would take some imagination.

Such a man does not go into exile easily.

The best hope for such a plan to succeed might lie in those around him.

His two sons Qusay and Uday are intimately involved in the running of administration and may feel they want out. There are a number of generals who might think this is a way of avoiding eventual prosecution.

Al-Mutamar says that "the thought of escaping cruises in the hearts of those closer to Saddam".

Precedent for caution

One has to be careful about these exile stories.

Just before the Gulf War of 1991, there was a similar flurry.

In the basement briefing room of the Foreign Office in London one afternoon, an official read out to a handful of diplomatic correspondents gathered for a daily briefing a copy of a telegram from a British diplomat in Mauritania.

Soporific post-lunch heads were suddenly raised from notebooks, though I have to admit that it took a moment to place Mauritania mentally on the map. It nestles between the Atlantic and the Sahara.

The telegram said that there were reports in Mauritania that Saddam Hussein's wife and an entourage of Iraqi officials had arrived there by plane the previous evening.

There was no proof but the very fact that the Foreign Office was offering this telegram was unusual in itself and left the very firm impression that the British Government believed that there was substance to this report.

The implications were of course huge. Saddam Hussein himself, it seemed, was preparing to go into exile.

The rush to file the story overcame any hesitation.

It caused a sensation naturally - but it was wrong, as we found out very quickly from other diplomatic missions in Mauritania. The French, especially, with their long experience and contacts in the region, dismissed it. The Iraqis scoffed.

The story died, Saddam Hussein stayed and the war went on.

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20 Jan 03 | Middle East
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