Secretary of State Colin Powell says the United States would be willing to try to help facilitate the exile of Saddam Hussein and members of his family and inner circle as a way to avoid war. But he said the United States could not, by itself, make any guarantees of immunity for the Iraqi leader.
The Bush administration had made clear repeatedly in the past that it would like to see Saddam Hussein step down from power and leave the country as a way to defuse the crisis over Iraq's disarmament. But Mr. Powell's remarks at a joint press appearance with Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursid Mahmud Kasuri marked the first time a senior administration official had offered U.S. assistance in the process.
"If he were to leave the country, and take some of his family members with him and others in the leading elite that have been responsible for so much trouble during the course of his regime, we would I'm sure try to help find a place for them to go. And so that certainly would be one way to avoid war, and we've indicated this before," he said.
There have been media reports of Arab diplomatic approaches to Saddam Hussein proposing exile as a way to avert a conflict, but countries such as Belarus and Mauritania, mentioned among others as possible places of refuge for the Iraqi leader, have denied they would take him.
Arab analysts have also said Saddam Hussein would be unlikely to go into exile without guarantees of immunity for himself and his inner circle from prosecution for war crimes or other offenses. Secretary Powell, in the talk with reporters here, said the United States, on its own, could offer no such assurances.
"I think it's not for the United States alone to offer that kind of protection," he said. "I mean it would have to be a broader forum that might look at such a question. But I think that's so hypothetical right now that it would be interesting to chat about but not terribly relevant at the moment."
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher later said exile was only "an idea floating out there" and that he was aware of no serious approach to the United States on the issue.
The secretary of state goes to the U.N. Security Council next week to deliver what he said Wednesday will be a "comprehensive" case that Iraq is defying U.N. disarmament demands.
Mr. Powell said it will include new U.S. intelligence information that will "fill in some of the gaps" in the council's knowledge of the Iraqi weapons program.
He said the Bush administration will be as forthcoming as it can in the February 5 briefing, without compromising intelligence sources and methods of collection.
Spokesman Boucher said there was no plan to invite Iraqi representatives to the session since "they already know what they're hiding."