Published reports in the United States and Europe suggest diplomatic efforts could be underway to persuade Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to give up power, a move U.S. officials have encouraged as a way of avoiding war over the Iraqi leader's alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.
Although some of Iraq's neighbors favor the idea, hardly anyone thinks the Iraqi leader would consider it. In recent days, Bush administration officials have been emphasizing their view that a war against Iraq is a last resort, and regardless of what United Nations weapons inspectors may find, the departure of the Iraqi leader would fulfill the U.S. goal of regime change in Baghdad without a single shot being fired.
"The first choice would be that Saddam Hussein would pick up and leave the country tonight. That would be nice for everybody," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, addressing reporters Tuesday.
The very next day, The Christian Science Monitor newspaper reported Saudi Arabia sent a secret envoy to Baghdad last month to persuade the Iraqi leader to give up power and go into exile, and avoid what Iraq's neighbors worry could be a devastating war in the region.
A U.S. official says he is not aware of any such overtures. But former U.S. ambassador David Mack, who served in Iraq and was a top State Department official in charge of Middle East affairs during the Gulf War in 1991, is not surprised countries in the region now could be urging the Iraqi leader to give up power.
"It is likely that it is going on. It is highly unlikely that Saddam Hussein will accept it," Mr. Mack said.
On Tuesday, Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, said his government would be willing to offer what he would only describe as a last chance effort for peace. A source within the Saudi government tells VOA the kingdom would be willing to consider what ever it takes to avoid another war, including helping arrange a face-saving way for the Iraqi leader to gain exile in a third country.
Privately, diplomats representing two of Iraq's neighbors say that would be the best option.
Khaled al-Maeena, editor in chief of Saudi Arabia's Arab News thinks the Iraqi leader might be willing to consider such an offer if it's presented by Arab governments. "There has been speculation that some Arab emissaries might go. I really think that if the right type of offer is made, he might slip away because this time he knows unlike the last time, the U.S. means business and they'll really gun for him and there's no place for him to hide," Mr. al-Maeena said.
But former Ambassador David Mack thinks President Saddam is likely to fight until the end rather than willingly accept defeat before the world. "If he seems to have a choice between an ignominious exile and a respected place in world history as someone who stood up to the United States, that would be preferable," Mr. Mack said.
A top Iraqi official is quoted by the French news agency, AFP, as saying President Saddam has no intention of going into exile. One longtime Arab diplomat based in Washington said an agreement for the Iraqi leader to step down would be the best scenario for everybody. But nobody can advise Saddam Hussein, he said, even if that advice means sparing his country another war.