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"They Were All Non-Starters" The Thwarted Iraqi Peace Proposals

edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair

by GARY LEUPP

The breaking story about efforts by Iraq’s Baathist regime to avoid U.S. invasion and occupation reveals a scandal greater than those which have preceded it: those involving lies about the war’s motives, vindictive treatment towards those telling the truth about it, and pathetic efforts to prettify what is in fact a wholesale bloody disaster. Four recent articles, in the New York Times, Knight-Ridder Newspapers, Guardian, and by ABC News, while containing some slightly contradictory information, inform us that the Bush administration was so hell-bent on attacking Iraq (for reasons bearing no relation to the stated casus belli) that it not only mislead the American people, but resisted the abjectly humiliating efforts of Iraqi authorities to comply with almost all stated U.S. demands. The only demands Baghdad did not and could not concede to were those for "regime change" (which international law does not recognize as a grounds for war) and for the surrender of the Iraqi military to American forces even without a fight.

The story has caused some stir, but not nearly enough, I suspect because the details are complicated. The mainstream media has generally treated the story with skepticism, and the cable news anchor heads who have applauded the war all along are having a real hard time with this one. The clearer the picture becomes, I hope, the more enlightened we all will become about the nature of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Here’s my sum-up of the reports.

Last-Ditch Iraqi Efforts to Avoid War: A Chronology

December 2002: Someone representing Gen. Tahir Jalil Habbush al Takriti, Saddam Hussein’s intelligence chief, made contact with CIA former counter-intelligence head Vincent Cannistraro. This representative, according to Cannistrano, stated that Saddam Hussein "knew there was a campaign to link him to September 11 and prove he had weapons of mass destruction. The Iraqis were prepared to satisfy these concerns. I reported the conversation to senior levels of the state department and I was told to stand aside and they would handle it."

[Cannistrano later learned that the offer had been "killed" by the Bush administration. All the offers "had at bottom the same thing---that Saddam would stay in power, and that was unacceptable to the administration. There were serious attempts to cut a deal but they were all turned down by the president and vice president."]

Sometime soon after that: The national security advisor to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Osama al Baz, sent a message through intermediaries to the U.S. State Department that the Iraqis wanted to discuss charges that Saddam had WMDs or ties with bin Laden. Unidentified U.S. officials told the New York Times; "when that approach went nowherethe Iraqis evidently tried to get through to the Pentagon."

They also tried to make contacts through Syrian intelligence, France, Russia, and Germany.

January 2003: F. Michael Maloof, a Defense Department official, working in the Office of Special Plans (an office deigned to "find" connections between Iraq and Sept. 11 or to establish grounds for war with Iraq) with Douglas Feith and David Wurmser, met with a Lebanese-American friend, Imad al-Hage (in some reports, Imad Hage or Imad Haje). Hage is a Maronite Christian who currently lives in Beirut and heads an insurance company, American Underwriters Group. He had at some point been recruited by Maloof to assist in the U.S. "war on terrorism." The Lebanese-American had recently handled an insurance claim for a Syrian citizen, who had introduced him to a senior Syrian intelligence official named Mohammed Nassif. The latter, a close aide to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, had expressed frustration to Hage about the difficulties Syria faced in communicating with U.S. officials. Nassif probably hoped to exploit Hage’s ties to Washington’s neocons to deliver a message to them. Hage mentions Syrian frustrations to Maloof, who arranges for Hage to meet with none other than neocon-par-excellence, then Defense Policy Board chair Richard Perle, as well as a top aide to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Jaymie Durnan. (The Pentagon has confirmed these meetings).

Early February: An influential Muslim Lebanese friend of Hage’s, knowing of his ties to Maloof, requests that he meet with a senior Iraqi official eager to talk to the Americans, and Hage cautiously agrees. Soon thereafter, Hassan al-Obeidi, chief of foreign operations of the Iraqi Intelligence Service, reaches Hage’s Beirut office, quickly collapsing from nervous stress, but after treatment, he explains his mission. He says Baghdad cannot understand why Iraq is being targeted. He insists the country possesses no weapons of mass destruction, and suggests the U.S. send in 2000 FBI agents to ascertain that fact to its own satisfaction. He offers the U.S. oil concessions. He bristles in indignation that the U.S. might order Saddam Hussein to give up power, but says elections could be held in two years. A few days later, in a second meeting in a Beirut hotel, he repeats these positions, and urges Hage to travel to Baghdad for talks with high officials. Hage agrees.

Mid-February: Hage visits Baghdad and has talks with Habbush as well as Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz. Habbush asks if it was a fact that Hage had met Perle, which Hage confirms. The intelligence chief then makes another offer to the U.S. (and implicitly, to Perle, understood to be a chief operator in the U.S. war preparations): oil concessions to U.S. companies, UN-supervised free elections, and the handing over of al-Qaeda agent Abdul Rahman Yasin, in custody in Iraq since 1994. On the Yasin offer, Habbush says " we want to show good faith" He also tells Hage, "Let your friends send in people and we will open everything to them." (Hage has recently stated "[Habbush] was conveying an offer Based on my meeting with his man, I think there was an effort to avert war. They were prepared to meet with high-ranking U.S. officials.") Habbush indicates that the Iraqis were having various indirect talks with the U.S. government, including one in Rome involving the CIA. (But perhaps because these were having no results, he was going directly to the neocons.)

At some point, either before or after this, a meeting is set up between Iraqi and officials in Morocco, but it does not take place.

February 19: Hage faxes a 3-page report on his Baghdad trip to Maloof. He indicates that the Iraqis have pledged to (1) cooperate in fighting terrorism; (2) give "full support for any US plan" in the Arab-Israeli peace process; (3) give " first priority [to the U.S.] as it relates to Iraq oil, mining rights;" (4) cooperate with US strategic interests in the region; (5) allow "direct US involvement on the ground in disarming Iraq." (The acceptable number rises to 5000 troops.) Maloof considers the offer sincere. He brings it to the attention of Jaymie Durnan (but Pentagon officials have recently denied that Durnan’s bosses Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld were aware of it).

February 21: In an email Malook tells Durnan that Perle was "willing to meet with Hage and the Iraqis if it has clearing from the building [the Pentagon]." Durnan emails back: "Mike, working this. Keep this close hold." Durnan separately emails two Pentagon officials asking for background on Hage.

(This background check reveals that there is "one blemish on" Hage’s record: "In January he had been briefly detained by the FBI at Dulles Airport in Washington when a handgun was found in his checked luggage." He was allowed to leave in a few hours.)

March 7: Hage meets with Perle in the lobby of Marlborough hotel in Bloomsbury, then an office in Knightsbridge about 2 hours. (Both men acknowledge this happened.) Perle tells Hage he wants to pursue the matter further with people in Washington; a few days later, he tells Hage that Washington refused to let him meet with Habbush or discuss any peace offers. ("He indicated," Hage stated recently, "that the consensus was it was a no-go.")

Later in March: Hage continues to pass on urgent messages from Iraq to Maloof and others. Maloof in one memo to the Pentagon writes: "Hage quoted Obeidi as saying this is the last window or channel through which this message has gone to the United States. He characterized the tone of Dr. Obeidi as begging." Iraq continues to try to contact the Bush administration through Syrian intelligence, France, Germany and Russia. Maloof relays a message to Perle that Obeidi and Habbush are "prepared to meet with you in Beirut, and as soon as possible, concerning ‘unconditional terms.’" Hage tells Perle "Such a meeting has Saddam Hussein’s clearance." Those in the Bush administration aware of the initiatives take no action. Perle tells a Saudi Arabian contact that U.S. conditions for peace include "Saddam’s abdication and departure, first to a U.S. military base for interrogation and then into supervised exile, a surrender of Iraqi troops, and the admission that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction."

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declares: "The American people can take comfort in knowing that their country has done everything humanly possible to avoid war and to secure Iraq’s peaceful disarmament." All-out war begins March 20.

Footnote (Early April): As the war rages, Iraqis propose a meeting between retired CIA official Robert Baer and Gen. Habbush in Ramadi, outside Baghdad, about peace, and the possibility of US-French sponsored elections. On April 9, the house designated as the site for negotiations is bombed by six precision-guided bombs.

Footnote 2 (May): Maloof is stripped of his security clearance and placed on administrative leave.

Commentary

So what is the response of the Bush administration to this just-exposed narrative of Nazi-like ultimatums issued a sovereign state? A "senior administration official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity" explained it much as Perle did to Hage. "They [Iraqi pleas for a deal] were all non-starters because they all involved Saddam staying in power." (A report in the Boston Globe by Bryan Bender November 7 also states that it was State Department policy that "any deal allowing Hussein to remain in power was a nonstarter.") The Knight Ridder piece doesn’t say the unnamed official maintained anonymity due to any residual sense of international legality or feelings of human morality; rather, he/she did so "because intelligence matters are classified." (Implication: the invasion of Iraq to remove Saddam from power [and so to allow he U.S. to seize power], as opposed to the official [widely discredited] reasons, is an intelligence matter.) Given Perle’s reported remarks to the Saudis, the bend over-backwards Iraqi concessions/pleas for mercy were also non-starters because they didn’t involve the surrender of Iraq’s army (without even a fight) to the U.S., and a forced confession of possession of those elusive WMDs.

Perle’s central role here is obvious. It is understandable that Saddam, Habbush and Obaid would have realized by early this year that the State Department and CIA had been marginalized by the Defense Department neocons, and that if Baghdad were really to avert the threatened attack it would be best advised to try to get through to the cabal and try to cut a deal with that lot. They may have seen Maloof, as an Arab-American associated with the Rumsfeld-Cheney-Wolfowitz-Feith-Bolton-Perle war party, as a sympathetic intermediary. They wound up dealing via Hage, who by all appearances is an honest broker, with Perle, who is second to none in the bellicose Bush administration as an advocate for ongoing Middle East regime change, and who (as indicated above) was thoroughly disinterested in aborting his cherished war.

But what’s Perle’s own explanation of his actions? He told the New York Times, "I was dubious that this would work, but I agreed to talk to people in Washington." He told ABC News, "Although I was not enthusiastic about the offer, I was willing to meet with the Iraqis. The U.S. government told me not to." Ross and Vlasto add: "Perle would not disclose which official or arm of the government rejected the talks." The Guardian states a "US intelligence source insisted that the decision not to negotiate came from the White House, which was demanding complete surrender." But to the New York Times, Perle claims that CIA officials "told him they did not want to pursue this channel." That’s interesting, since Perle’s been dissing the CIA for quite some time, since the Agency tends to really dislike his penchant for promoting disinformation and wasn’t really keen on the Iraq attack. I think it likely that Perle was as inclined as any of his superiors (upon some of whom he wields a nefarious influence) to say, "Screw the peace prospects. No stepping back now. Let’s just get in there and follow the plan to secure the realm." http://www.israeleconomy.org/strat1.htm Afterwards, you can blame the Agency for any failure to pursue peace possibilities, just as you can fault (as Condi does) the Agency for the Niger uranium "intelligence failure."

* * *

CNN’s coverage, centering on James Risen’s article and Hage’s narrative, has been predictably tendentious. While news anchor Aaron Brown did raise the theoretical prospect that there might actually have been an effort by Iraq to avoid invasion, he treated such an effort as somehow more insidious than the invasion itself. Might the Iraqis, he asked, with their history of duplicity, might just have been biding for more time? (Questions: Time to do what? Amass WMDs while Americans, following UN inspectors, in conditions of unparalleled intrusive access to a thoroughly humiliated sovereign state, searched for such weapons? Or just time to avoid a criminal assault? Is there anything objectionable in principle in seeking to delay invasion?) "Why should we believe you?" Hage was repeatedly asked, as though he was trying to ignobly discredit the administration’s more reliable representation of events. Hage responded that he had no personal axe to grind, but that the media had somehow come across emails exchanged between him and Perle and others, and that he’d been told that whether he would talk to the cameras or not, his name would be brought into this. So he’s just saying what he knows or was told.

The Lebanese seems a guileless, honest man who saw an opportunity to help Iraq avert war. But perhaps a dangerous man to the Bushite historical revisionists and their media cheerleaders. (Rather like Joseph Wilson, the former ambassador who incurred Bushite wrath by exposing the Niger uranium lie.) His simple narrative undercuts the official history that Saddam’s Iraq threatened the American people with WMDs and worked with al-Qaeda terrorists. It underscores a theme driven home by many in the antiwar community, and increasingly entering mainstream discourse: the Bushites wanted the Iraq war, wanted to use 9-11 to get the nation’s permission for it, and wouldn’t allow any Iraqi action to thwart them in their determination to attack and occupy the country.

"You’re saying Iraq didn’t want war?" CNN’s clueless Bill Hemmer, with a smugly quizzical look on his cherub-face, asked Hage, as though any rational viewer would just assume Iraq wanted to be attacked. (I seem to recall Hemmer, prior to the Iraq attack, referred to CIA warmonger-analyst Kenneth Pollack, author of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Attacking Iraq as "my friend" at the end of an interview with the man; in any case, he hardly pretends journalistic impartiality on the Iraq war issue.) Hage for his part—and this goes to show how intimidated normal people can be in the current atmosphere—stated he didn’t know the answer to Hemmer’s question, but was just conveying what Iraqis had told him.


* * *

On Human Scum

The North Korean government has introduced into political discourse the useful term "human scum." It applied it to John Bolton, a neocon top State Department official (Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security) in charge of accusing selected countries of acquiring or seeking to acquire WMDs. He acknowledges that Israel has nukes although he declares this is not a problem. But he has a list of enemy states whose weapons programs, real or imagined, justify the overthrow of their governments. He has claimed that Cuba’s biomedical industry, which provides cheap pharmaceuticals and vaccinations sold worldwide, constitutes a "biological weapons program," a charge rejected by former President Jimmy Carter last year. He is the administration point-man behind the "Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act" that imposes a U.S. trade embargo on Syria, and is actively preparing for U.S. actions (in concert with Israel) against Syria. (Perhaps the Syrians, following the model of Iraq’s Baathists, are now pleading for a deal with Bolton as well as Perle and all the above-named scumbags.)

Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Wurmser, Perle, Bolton, Feith, the whole lot of them are planning unjustifiable attacks on poor weak countries, lying through their teeth every step of the way, as they plan to deploy more American youth to achieve their world-changing mission. Their Iraq imbroglio has so far cost at least 389 U.S. lives (265 in combat, most of those in "post-war" combat—-if that makes any sense), officially thousands injured (lots of head wounds and limb amputations); and of course, 10s of 1000s of Iraqi civilians, and no less significantly, Iraqi soldiers doing what soldiers are universally entitled to do: resist invasion. What is scummier than to produce such suffering, and to eagerly plan to inflict more? To scrupulously avoid human combat for any cause in their own personal experience, yet gleefully use others of their own countrymen to inflict death abroad? To dismiss offers of peace, while demanding that sovereign states grovel in their service? I would suggest that the "human scum" appellation be applied very selectively, but the Bush administration offers many appropriate designees. Human scum rules at present, but decent people, once sufficiently irritated by the toxicity and stench, can surely clean it up.

GARY LEUPP is a professor of History at Tufts University and coordinator of the Asian Studies Program.

He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu