Survivor or suicide? Intelligence agencies debate Saddam's fate

Monday, March 17, 2003

LONDON Western intelligence agencies can agree on one thing: For the first time Saddam Hussein knows that war is imminent.

But there is no agreement on how the Iraqi president will respond in the final days of a 12-year showdown with the United States.

The argument pits intelligence officials who assess that Saddam will offer to abdicate against others who conclude that the president will fight to his death.

The intelligence debate was sparked by the clearest signals by Saddam that he is prepared to go into exile, Middle East Newsline reported. The message has been relayed to the United Arab Emirates, which has drafted a plan for Saddam's exile in exchange for immunity from war crimes prosecution.

Most U.S. intelligence sources discount the prospect that Saddam will abdicate before a U.S. attack. The sources said Saddam is convinced that accepting such an offer would immediately endanger him and his family from rivals within the regime.

"There are two scenarios regarding Saddam," Amos Malka, former Israeli military intelligence chief, said. "One is a Saddam who will commit suicide. The other is a Saddam who wants to survive."

The intelligence sources said a Saddam intent on survival will accept an Arab offer backed by the United States for his abdication. The Iraqi president will also refrain from launching biological or chemical weapons attacks even in the first stages of any war.

Israeli intelligence sources said that at this point Saddam appears determined to survive. They said Saddam has not deployed his medium-range Al Hussein missiles in western Iraq, within striking distance of Israel. In addition, Saddam has refrained from threatening the use of weapons of mass destruction against the United States or its allies.

However, the intelligence sources also said Saddam has deployed his Republican Guard divisions in a formation meant to ensure that his regime could survive an initial U.S. strike. At least two divisions are located around Baghdad while two other divisions have been deployed along the northern and southern approaches to the capital. Iraq has also gathered all of its anti-aircraft assets around Baghdad.

"Saddam has relayed signals that he is ready to discuss giving up power," a senior Western intelligence source said. "But so far this is purely tactical. Once the war begins, Saddam could urge his Arab allies that he is willing to end the war and refrain from any WMD [weapons of mass destruction] attacks in exchange for safe passage out of Iraq. His military deployment is meant to give him enough time for international pressure on the United States to halt the war." On Sunday, President George Bush stressed that Saddam's abdication is the only way Iraq can avoid war. But the intelligence sources said Bush's assertion was part of a U.S. effort to undermine the regime and encourage the assassination of Saddam.

"Saddam can leave the country, if he's interested in peace," Bush said. "He got to decide whether he was going to disarm, and he didn't. He can decide whether he wants to leave the country."

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