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US Officials Play Down Reported Offer of Last-Minute Deal to Avoid Iraq War - 2003-11-06

U.S. media reports say Saddam Hussein may have tried to make a last-minute deal to avoid the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The White House says it gave the former Iraqi leader every opportunity to comply with years of United Nations resolutions.

The New York Times and the ABC television network are reporting that U.S. defense officials received a secret message before the invasion, saying that top Iraqi leaders wanted Washington to know that the country no longer had weapons of mass destruction.

The reports say Lebanese-American businessman Imad Hage passed-on the message from Iraqi leaders, who were offering to allow American troops to search for those weapons.

According to the reports, Mr. Hage says he met with Pentagon advisor Richard Perle in London in early March to explain Iraq's position. Mr. Perle confirms that meeting, and says the Iraqis wanted direct talks with him or another U.S. official, but he says such a meeting was not approved by the Central Intelligence Agency.

U.S. officials are playing down the reported offer, saying it was only one of several efforts by the government then in Baghdad to avert war.

White House Spokesman Scott McClellan says there was no need for Saddam Hussein to use back-door contacts because, he says, the front-door was open.

"We exhausted every legitimate and credible opportunity to resolve the world's differences with Saddam Hussein in a peaceful way. If there were a credible and legitimate opportunity to resolve it peacefully, we would have pursued it," he said.

Mr. McClellan says Saddam Hussein's failure to comply with 12 years worth of U.N. Security Council resolutions was the reason that the coalition, in his words, was forced to act against him.

"Saddam Hussein had any number of channels available to him through which he could have communicated with the United States, or members of the coalition," he said. "He was given more than enough opportunity to avert the use of military force. He was given opportunity to leave the country. He chose to continue his defiance."

The reports quote Mr. Hage as saying Iraqi officials were intimidated by the build-up of U.S. troops along the border, and were offering access to sites that would not have been offered without that build-up.

The immediacy of the threat from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was President Bush's biggest justification for toppling Saddam Hussein.

Six months after Mr. Bush declared an end to major combat operations, none of those weapons has yet been found.