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Iraq: Hussein Unlikely To Welcome Asylum Offers As Solution To Crisis

  • Charles Recknagel

Recent days have seen a flurry of reports that several countries are discussing offering Saddam Hussein a place of exile to spare Iraq a war. But as RFE/RL reports, there is little reason to expect Saddam would accept such an offer.

Prague, 10 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Western and Arab newspapers in recent weeks have reported that officials in several countries have discussed whether they would offer refuge to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in order to avoid a U.S.-led war on Iraq.

The reports say the question is being raised in countries as diverse as Belarus, Egypt, Iran, Libya, Mauritania, Russia, and Syria. But the reports raise more questions than they answer, because the news leaks come from anonymous sources. It is also unclear whether these states are considering the matter due to feelers from the United States, European or Arab capitals, or on their own initiative.

Still, the frequency of the reports, and the official responses from several of the states cited, make the story intriguing. Earlier this week, both Iran and Mauritania separately denied any suggestion that they might be considering asylum for Hussein.

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi dismissed a German newspaper report that German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer had discussed the idea with him. He called the report that Fischer had told him the United States wanted to overthrow Hussein without a war and considered Iran and Russia possible choices for exile "groundless rumors."

Iran, which has no diplomatic relations with either Washington or Baghdad, fought an eight-year war with Hussein in the 1980s and is the operational base of one of Iraq's main armed opposition groups.

Mauritania, which broke off relations with Baghdad after reestablishing formal links with Israel in 1999, also dismissed press speculation that it might host the Iraqi leader. The country's official AMI news agency said, "these rumors are completely unfounded."

Belarus this week also denied what it called rumors that Minsk might give Hussein asylum. Belarusian Foreign Minstry spokesman Andrey Savinhykh said Minsk is not now or in the future considering such a step and that such rumors were started by the United States.

Many of the other states reported as possible sanctuaries for Hussein have made no public comment on the press reports.

While the talk of identifying refuges for Hussein mostly draws official denials or silence, the reports still have gained some credibility thanks to persistent comments from U.S. and other officials that Hussein's departure from Baghdad would be one way to avoid a conflict.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld repeated that position in a press conference this week, saying he did not feel a war with Iraq is "inevitable." "I don't know why anyone would use the word 'inevitable.' It clearly is not inevitable. The first choice would be that Saddam Hussein would pick up and leave the country tonight. That would be nice for everybody," Rumsfeld said.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said this week that exile is an option "that we all hope [Hussein] would take advantage of."

Similarly, a top Turkish official, Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis, has called Hussein's exit a "viable option" for ending the Iraq crisis.

The Saudi foreign minister has suggested that Arab states may press Hussein to take such an offer if the UN backs military action against Baghdad. Prince Saud al-Faisal said recently that, "even if the Security Council issues a unanimous decision to attack Iraq, we hope a chance will be given to the Arab states to find a political solution to the issue."

But analysts say that, while some capitals may hope for Hussein's exit, there is no indication that Hussein himself may consider going into exile as some other dictators have in the past. Those dictators include Uganda's Idi Amin, now living in Saudi Arabia, and Ethiopia's former military leader Mengistu Haile Mariam, who is now living in Zimbabwe.

Falih Abdul Jabbar, an expert on Iraqi society at the University of London in England, said many Iraqis still remember the fate of a health minister who once suggested during a cabinet meeting that Hussein pretend to step down in order to foil his enemies.

The minister, Riyadh Hussein, proposed that Hussein respond positively to Tehran's demand that the president relinquish power as the price for ending the Iran-Iraq war. On Hussein's orders, the minister was taken into an adjacent room and shot.

Jabbar said that an envoy from Qatar who recently suggested that Hussein would be welcome to take refuge in his country also learned how mad such ideas make the Iraqi leader. "The foreign minister of Qatar was reported as saying that he suggested to Saddam [in Baghdad] that he could go to Qatar or other countries. Saddam didn't utter a word. He left the meeting hall, and the air-conditioning was shut off, and the guy unceremoniously was kicked out," Jabbar said.

Jabbar said that Hussein reacts so angrily because he views himself as the embodiment of Iraq and is unable to distinguish his life from that of the state he rules. "He looks at himself as a sacred thing. He considers himself a demigod and as too great to be thought of as a man who would blink [surrender in the face of danger] or just as a man who would be in need of comfort and security," Jabbar said.

Hussein has worked throughout his more than 23 years as president to cultivate an image of himself as the only man capable of leading the Iraqi nation. Baghdad's ambassador to Russia, Abbas Khalaf, told reporters this week that any talk of exile is "nonsense." "Hussein will continue to defend his homeland. He is one of the leaders who will never leave his country and will fight till the last drop of blood," Khalaf said.

Analysts say Hussein is also unlikely to accept refuge in any other country because a central element of his character -- and his survival as a dictator -- is his inability to trust those who make him offers. That means Hussein would almost certainly suspect the leader of any country who offers him refuge today of being ready to betray him tomorrow -- most likely by giving him up to an international war crimes tribunal.

The United States and Britain are currently compiling evidence against Hussein of crimes against humanity and favor bringing him before a UN court. Washington successfully pressed Belgrade through sanctions to extradite former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to The Hague tribunal and would be capable of doing the same to states that gave Hussein refuge.

So far, U.S. officials have given no public hint they would waive future war crimes charges against Hussein or a dozen of his top aides, including his two sons, who also are under scrutiny for crimes against humanity.

Instead, Washington has frequently called for "regime change" in Baghdad if Hussein does not fully disarm in cooperation with the UN. And that call is something that could make it very difficult to convince Hussein or his top aides that the president's exile is their best option.