U.S. drops threat, allows trip by Saddam's cousin

Monday, January 20, 2003

ABU DHABI In the space of one week, the United States has reversed its stance toward an Arab effort to arrange President Saddam Hussein's exile.

Over the weekend, the Bush administration signaled its agreement to consider an Arab proposal for immunity from war crimes prosecution for Saddam, his aides and their families in return for their exile.

Arab diplomatic sources said the Bush administration's new position has opened the way for a visit by an envoy of Saddam to Cairo to discuss the exile proposal. The sources said former Iraqi minister Ali Majid Hassan, who is also Saddam's cousin, is expected to arrive in Egypt over the next 48 hours.

Majid, also known as "Chemical Ali" was to have arrived in Cairo on Saturday to deliver a message from Saddam on an Arab proposal that he enter exile as a means to avoid a U.S.-led war against Iraq. But the United States had warned that Majid was a war criminal and could be subject to arrest and prosecution, Middle East Newsline reported.

The sources said that over the weekend Washington agreed to withdraw its threat. They said the administration pledged not to intercept Majid's flight from Damascus to Cairo.

On Friday, Majid arrived in Damascus, where he delivered a message from Saddam to Syrian President Bashar Assad. Majid has been accused of killing hundreds of thousands of Kurds in chemical weapons attacks in the 1980s.

[On Sunday, British and U.S. warplanes bombed eight communications facilities in Iraq's air defense network. U.S. Central Command identified the facilities as cable repeater stations in southern Iraq. On Friday, allied warplanes attacked two cable repeater stations in the same area.]

The diplomatic sources said Saddam has not formally agreed to the exile proposal. But they raised the prospect that the Iraqi president would seek to take with him thousands of family members and supporters as part of any deal.

In Washington, the Bush administration again expressed the hope that Saddam would abdicate. Defense Minister Donald Rumsfeld said he would recommend that Saddam be granted immunity from prosecution in return for his going into exile.

"I would be delighted if Saddam Hussein threw in the towel, said 'the game's up, the international community has caught me, and I'll just leave,'" Rumsfeld said on Sunday. "To avoid a war, I would be, personally, would recommend that some provision be made so that the senior leadership in that country and their families could be provided haven in some other country. And I think that that would be a fair trade to avoid a war."

Secretary of State Colin Powell also urged Saddam to go into exile. Officials said Powell supports a proposal to offer immunity to Saddam and his aides from war crimes prosecution.

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