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Saddam Hussein in Exile

January 20, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: The drive to move Saddam Hussein from Iraq into exile. Tom Bearden narrates our set-up report.

TOM BEARDEN: As the number of American troops in the Persian Gulf approaches 150,000, Turkey and other regional states are reportedly floating a deal to allow Saddam Hussein to go into exile as a way to avoid war. Defense Sec. Donald Rumsfeld said he’d consider such a proposal. He spoke yesterday on ABC’s “This Week.”

DONALD RUMSFELD: I think war is your last choice. 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.”

TOM BEARDEN: Rumsfeld was asked if the U.S. would be willing to give the Iraqi leader immunity from war crimes prosecution.

DONALD RUMSFELD: 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.

TOM BEARDEN: Also over the weekend, Sec. of State Colin Powell urged Saddam to listen carefully to the exile proposals, and the governments of Great Britain and Germany said they’re open to the possibility as well. Recent reports suggest North Africa as a possible safe haven. Other options include Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Russia.

Exile would not be a new option for the Iraqi leader. Arab leaders made such an offer in 1991 to avoid the Gulf War; he declined. Today, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said there are: Arab and non-Arab efforts being made to avert the war and to reach a formula that will be accepted by all parties without the use of force. Separately, a group of Arab intellectuals is circulating a petition stating: “The immediate resignation of Saddam Hussein, whose rule has been a nightmare for Iraq and the Arab world, is the only way to avoid more violence.”

Meanwhile, as U.N. weapons inspectors continue their work in Iraq, Saddam’s regime is dismissing talk of exile. A top aide today called it “absurd,” and a form of psychological warfare from Washington.

JIM LEHRER: More now from Robin Wright, the chief diplomatic correspondent for the Los Angeles Times; Mohammed Wahby, a retired Egyptian diplomat who is now a columnist for the Egyptian magazine al-Mussawar; and Judith Yaphe, who specialized in the Middle East for 20 years at the CIA. She’s now a senior research fellow at the National Defense University in Washington.

Mr. Wahby what does your reporting tell you about how serious these exile efforts are?

MOHAMMED WAHBY: Actually, they are quite serious, Jim, because there has been an emerging consensus in the Arab world over the last week if not four weeks actually, not only at the intellectual level, but among even some leaders, which was, of students, which was quite surprising.– because among the youth, the youth usually are very militant, but quite a number of students now, actually leaders of students are coming out with the same proposal, because they don’t find any other choice. They cannot possibly go back. That’s number one.

Number two, also all attempts to persuade the United States to stop short of going to war has failed and therefore Saddam Hussein has one of two choices.

Either to choose the fate of Hitler, and that is to commit suicide after the United States and other allied troops come into Baghdad, or to save even his own country and save the region also from terrible tragedies by accepting the hospitality of any Arab or Islamic states.

JIM LEHRER: What would you add to that, Robin Wright, about the seriousness of this effort and who is actually in charge. Is anybody in charge?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Saudi Arabia has played a leading role, which is very interesting because Saudi Arabia is not a nation that normally takes a strong leadership role; it often defers to Egypt.

But I think you’re seeing a growing consensus around the world, this has widespread support in Europe, there’s a little bit of division I think within the United States. But it is clearly the most appealing option to avoid war at this juncture.

JIM LEHRER: What’s the division in the United States?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, I think there are some that actually fear that if Saddam goes, you will still have the same kinds of people in power, the Baathist Party, which follows the same kind of ideology, and many of the military officials who were responsible for the use of chemical weapons in the past.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see this as something to take seriously?

JUDITH YAPHE: Yeah, I would take it seriously and I would also argue that those people who are pushing hardest for this, the Saudis, the Syrians, even the Turks, want much of what is there under Saddam to remain.

They’ve got no problem with the Baath Party as such. They’ve got no problem with much of the leadership in having a similar leadership follow him because that’s something they know and they can deal with and they think that that will be least threatening to them.

But I don’t think Saddam is going to run, he’s not a runner. And I think that the United States, the officials that we’ve heard other the weekend, Sec. Rumsfeld, I think there’s two purposes, two audiences they’re dealing with.

One is to keep pressure on Saddam Hussein. And the only way you keep his attention is by keeping the pressure on very hard and by having him believe, which I think he does, that there’s a credible use of force against him.

Now, the second audience is everybody else, which is to say see, we’re trying to find every way possible so we can avoid war, but we may not be able to, but at least we’re willing to entertain this prospect.

JIM LEHRER: As a matter of negotiation, what’s in it for Saddam to do this? Why should he leave his country what would he get out of it other than his skin?

MOHAMMED WAHBY: Well, you see, I believe that all depends on how strongly, how credible this request or this appeal by different Arab countries, and also Turkey, how credible that message should be to him.

JIM LEHRER: In other words they have to do more than invite him out?

MOHAMMED WAHBY: Yes, absolutely. They have to also appeal to him from his point of view.

You have to tell him something like this, for instance, that listen, Saddam, you have built the strongest scientific, military, industrial base ever witnessed in the Arab world and yet it was destroyed in 1990, 1991. You have rebuilt it — in a miraculous way.You have to appeal to him in his own terms. Now, are you going to sacrifice again the same thing? That’s number one.

Number two, Saddam, you have always been swearing that you are an Arab nationalist, you have always been swearing about the Palestinian cause. Are you aware what’s going to happen to the Palestinians if war breaks out against you in Iraq? Sharon might use it, that’s number one. And so on and so on, but a number of things that can appeal to Saddam. And then Saddam, you are not going to live in a foreign country, you are going to live among your Muslim brethren, your Arab brethren.

JIM LEHRER: Somewhere?

MOHAMMED WAHBY: Somewhere.

JIM LEHRER: Other than Iraq. Does that make sense to you in terms of an argument, a credible argument to make to this guy?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Look, the one thing that will appeal to Saddam Hussein and might tempt him is the possibility, remote as it may seem now, that he could make a comeback. He believes that the –.

JIM LEHRER: In Iraq?

ROBIN WRIGHT: In Iraq. He believes the American experiment will fail in Baghdad and that whether it’s the ethnic differences within the country or the inability of the Americans to open up the system and make it work, that some people may want, you know, to see the return of Saddam Hussein down the road.So that I suspect at the end of the day would be the one thing that would get him.

But of course the most important issue in all of this is really, is he going to get the kind of guarantees necessary, which means immunity from prosecution of war crimes. And this is where you see within the administration a real battle.

JIM LEHRER: I take it you don’t think that, in other words, nobody should be packing Saddam’s bags at this point.

JUDITH YAPHE: No, I don’t think so.

JIM LEHRER: Why not?

JUDITH YAPHE: Well, he’s not a runner, he’s not a coward. He is interested in survival –.

JIM LEHRER: This is the way he’s going to see it, I’m not a coward?

JUDITH YAPHE: I think he will. His whole outlook is colored in a tribal sense of ethics and values: That which is manly, that which is heroic, that which is honorable. And it would not be honorable to run. How could he leave Iraq, he is Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: What about Mr. Wahby’s argument?

JUDITH YAPHE: I want to come back to that, because you have to butter him up, is that the right — it’s good enough.But it’s not going to work. Because where would he go?

If he were willing to go, I would argue that none of the neighbors would have him, because I think Robin is right, once he’s going to be placed somewhere, he will work to get back to where he was. Who wants that troublemaking within their own society?

All these societies are rather precarious at this point anyway, which is something Crown Prince Abdullah has been talking about in his other moments. We have to address certain dangers. You bring in Saddam, there’s no way they can protect him, there’s no way that he will feel secure or that he would not begin to plot and scheme. That’s what will happen, I would think.

MOHAMMED WAHBY: I think he would be greatly weakened, if he accepts, he will be greatly weakened among his own people. And at the same time there are some countries which can accept him.

JIM LEHRER: Which ones?

MOHAMMED WAHBY: I can name Libya for instance.

ROBIN WRIGHT: No way.

JUDITH YAPHE: No.

MOHAMMED WAHBY: Okay. All right. What about, he has once been to Egypt.

ROBIN WRIGHT: I don’t think so.

JUDITH YAPHE: Yes, that’s true.

MOHAMMED WAHBY: When he was young, when he was young he was a political refugee in Egypt. That’s number one. Number two, in Egypt, don’t worry at all; he will not be able to do anything, I know Egypt very well, he will not be able to do anything.

JIM LEHRER: He’d be in a form of house arrest while he was there?

MOHAMMED WAHBY: No. In Egypt he can move everywhere but he would always be under the eyes of several -

JIM LEHRER: That’s what I mean.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Egypt gets $3 billion a year from the United States. There’s no way that the United States –

MOHAMMED WAHBY: We have heard Mr. Rumsfeld and all the other officials welcoming anything that would save American blood. So that is enough, I mean, an argument for the United States even to increase the $3 billion.

JUDITH YAPHE: I don’t think so, it’s unrealistic that Egypt would accept. I would think the only country where he would feel somewhat safe might be in Saudi if only because, because he would be under Islamic protection. And that would provide him some kind of shield. But I can’t see the Saudis willing to, they may house Idi Amin, –

MOHAMMED WAHBY: Impossible.

JIM LEHRER: Impossible?

MOHAMMED WAHBY: Impossible.

JUDITH YAPHE: — who was not a very nice person, but I think that taking Saddam would be beyond their capabilities or anybody else’s. They want him to go to Belarus or some place really far away.

JIM LEHRER: Really far away. You talked about different audiences. There was another suggestion today that all of this talk of going into exile, there’s another audience in mind and that is the people around Saddam that, okay, they’re giving you, they’re going to bomb us back to whatever, we’ve, they’ve given you a chance to stop this if you’ll just leave town, and they might then trigger their own coup against Saddam. Is that realistic? I’m not asking you to tell me whether that’s going to happen or not, but is that on the list of possibilities?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Absolutely. I think that’s probably what is far more likely than going into exile, at the very last minute when those around Saddam see that their own fate is tied to this man and that the only way to save themselves is to do something against him, to remove him from the equation, there might be something.

It’s still a long shot because of his own protection. He’s incredible, and he keeps his family around him so closely that it would be very difficult to do it.

JUDITH YAPHE: I think Robin is right. It’s implicit in a lot of the messages, but at the same time for an Iraqi to contemplate doing any of that, you’d almost have to think that Saddam was almost dead, because the risk is so high of moving against him.

JIM LEHRER: What are the risks? Explain that…

JUDITH YAPHE: Well, Saddam’s security forces have penetrated almost every, I would say virtually every opposition group. They have unveiled most of the coup plots or attempted coup plots that have been against them until the past ten to twelve years at least. So that they know pretty well what is going on.

If I were an Iraqi, I would wait to see Saddam being dragged through the streets the way they dragged Nuri Said the prime minister of the 1958 coup before I was brave enough to -

JIM LEHRER: No matter what anybody’s saying…

JUDITH YAPHE: Remember, all the doubles? The danger is, are you going to get the real Saddam Hussein?

MOHAMMED WAHBY: I think it’s not possible to think of any sort of coup de tats now… but I would not rule it out later. Later in the sense of if there is a blitz kreig — right at the beginning. And they find that the entire system is collapsing, then there will be the possibility of some of his generals turning against him.

But not at the beginning. At the beginning I would agree, I would agree it’s not possible at all. Saddam as you said actually can read people’s mind even before they start.

JUDITH YAPHE: That’s right. I can look you in the eye and know what you are thinking.

MOHAMMED WAHBY: Absolutely. And he does.

JUDITH YAPHE: If they wait that long though, it will be too late, because they will believe that the reward will be to be given control of Iraq, and that won’t happen. The longer they wait the less likely that is to, I would say is a possibility.

JIM LEHRER: And back Robin to the concerns of people within the administration, that is what they’re concerned about, we may get this guy out of here and nothing may change so, they want a two-part deal, right?

ROBIN WRIGHT: There are those who actually want to make sure that Saddam and the system go. And the danger is if Saddam really steps aside and takes the so-called dirty dozen with him and his family, that in fact the system remains.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Well, I think we’ve pretty well resolved this tonight. Thank you all three very much.

JUDITH YAPHE: Thank you.