Arab leaders looking for a way to avoid a U.S.-Iraq war they fear would ignite their volatile region are considering the possibility of pressing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to step down and go into exile, diplomats say.
But the diplomats say the idea has not yet coalesced, and it would be useless to make such an offer until Saddam believes he has no other no option.
"There is a strong feeling that the United States is after Saddam and not after weapons of mass destruction and therefore efforts should focus on how to persuade Saddam to leave," one Arab diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
While newspapers have carried reports of offers made to Saddam to flee to Egypt or Libya, even Cuba or North Korea, no government has commented officially on the prospect.
Last week, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal told reporters that Mideast leaders repeatedly have urged Saddam to try to avert war. But Prince Saud was vague when asked whether Arab leaders -- and Saudi Arabia in particular -- had urged the Iraqi regime to persuade Saddam to leave power and accept political asylum elsewhere.
"Communication is continuing on levels announced and unannounced, but all the Arab countries are involved in preventing any military action against Iraq," he said.
Sabah Salman, Saddam's press secretary during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, does not believe the Iraqi leader would ever bow out willingly.
Salman, who defected after the 1991 Gulf War, said Saddam in 1982 called his top aides to a meeting to discuss a demand from the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that Saddam step down in exchange for peace. Salman said that when Minister of Health Riyadh Hussein ventured that Saddam should accept the offer "for tactical reasons to test Khomeini's seriousness," the minister was taken to an adjacent room and shot.
"Saddam is keeping the last bullet in his gun for himself," Salman told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from his European exile.
President Bush has threatened to use military force if Saddam does not surrender chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. With U.S. troops ordered to deploy in the region in case of war, Iraqi officials and the state-run press have vowed to fight any U.S. invasion.
Jordanian analyst Nedal Mansour said Saddam could choose exile over losing everything if a way is found for him to leave with his family, members of his inner circle and a significant portion of the fortune he has amassed over his decades of dictatorship.
"It all depends on the offer he can get," Mansour said.
In August, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani visited Baghdad for talks with Saddam, and newspaper reports said he offered the Iraqi leader exile in an unspecified country. Iraqi officials denied the reports, and al-Thani said his visit to Baghdad was aimed only at persuading Saddam to accept the return of U.N. weapons inspectors, which Saddam did a month later.
A proposal by Qatar earlier this month to convene an emergency Arab summit has fueled speculation the Gulf emirate is trying to garner broad Arab backing for Saddam's peaceful exit. The Arab League's 22 members, though, have yet to agree to the emergency summit. A regular summit is scheduled in Bahrain in March.
A few years ago amid a similar crisis, Egyptian officials publicly suggested giving Saddam asylum in Cairo.
Egypt has hosted many of the region's fallen leaders, including King Saud of Saudi Arabia when he was forced to abdicate in 1955; Yemeni President Abdellah al Salal when he was overthrown in 1966; the shah after Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution; and Sudanese President Gaafar Nimeiri after he was ousted from power in 1985.