INTERNATIONAL

Saddam sought last-minute compromise with U.S.?

Washington NOV. 6. In a report that is bound to be pursued seriously, at least two news outlets have said that the Saddam Hussein regime frantically tried to send a message to Washington that it sought to avert a war.

The Pentagon is supposed to have received this message from an influential Lebanese American businessman, who had indicated that Mr. Hussein was seeking to strike a deal, say ABC News and The New York Times.

According to this version, top officials of the Iraqi intelligence service and others had told the business magnate, Imad Hage, that they wanted Washington to know that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction; were willing to let American troops and experts into the country for a search mission; and even offered to hand over a person accused of being behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centre, who was being held in Baghdad.

The idea of the Saddam Hussein regime was to open a channel of communication with the Bush administration; and one that supposedly had the backing at the very top.

What is not clear at this time is what senior officials of the Republican administration made out of the "offer".

The messages from Baghdad, through Mr. Hage, were directed to the office of the Under-Secretary of Defence for Policy and Planning, Douglas Feith.

According to published reports, the Central Intelligence Agency had apparently authorised a meeting between a top Pentagon advisor, Richard Perle and Mr. Hage.

The meeting took place in London where Mr. Hage set out the Iraqi position and asked for direct meetings with Mr. Perle or other authorised representatives.

The CIA eventually told Mr. Perle that it did not wish to pursue the channel, it is being said.

Senior Pentagon officials are once again making the headlines over Iraq. But the fact that senior Iraqi officials seriously tried to open a line of communication — and one that supposedly had the backing of Mr. Hussein — will be of major interest for the simple reason that questions have been posed if this Bush administration exhausted all avenues before opting for invasion this March.