CAIRO, Egypt – Libya, Mauritania, Egypt, Belarus, Cuba or North Korea -- could one become Saddam Hussein's next home?
Arab diplomats say the idea -- which has not been publicly confirmed -- has been presented to Saddam as a way out not only for him and his family, but also for his people, suffering for 12 years under punishing ut denials have come as quickly as new countries are raised, and many experts say they do not believe Saddam will leave Iraq.
The United States has threatened war to topple Saddam, whom it accuses of hiding nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters in Washington this week that, "it would be a good idea if [Saddam] took the opportunity to leave."
Arab leaders have tried before to lure Saddam into exile. In 1991, Egypt offered Saddam a haven to avert the Gulf War; he declined.
Some analysts believe there's not enough pressure on the Iraqi leader to force him to consider such an option now. The Americans may have him in their gun sights, but the bombs have not started falling and there is no collective Arab and Western support for military action against him.
In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said: "You've known from repeated statements from both the State Department and here that if Saddam Hussein were to leave his country that would be a welcome event."
But Fleischer added that, "it seemed unlikely that Saddam had any real interest in exile."
Arab leaders are urging the United States to give them one more opportunity to resolve the crisis peacefully.
"At least give us a chance," Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud told NBC on Monday. "If in the final analysis we don't succeed, those who are working for war can have their war as they please, which is going to be a catastrophe for the region."
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak noted "Arab and non-Arab efforts being made to avert the war and to reach a formula that will be accepted by all parties without the use of force."
Asked about reports of "the secret dispatch of emissaries to Baghdad" with proposals to end the crisis, Mubarak said, without denying the reports: "The era of secrets is over. Today's world is a world with no secrets and everything is known, monitored and followed." He spoke to Egyptian newspaper editors on a flight Tuesday from Saudi Arabia, where he had gone to consult on Iraq.
Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi said the U.S. approach to Iraq "takes us to the boundary of irresponsibility."
The Libyan leader, who said he knows Saddam well, also said he didn't think Saddam was rational. "But even if he is not rational or wise, he does not constitute a threat," Gadhafi said. "We don't know who poses a greater threat -- the American president or Saddam Hussein."
Saddam would have to be given guarantees he will not face a fate like that of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who is on trial on war crimes charges. Thousands of Iraqis have been slaughtered since Saddam came to power in 1979, and the Iraqi leader could face calls for retribution.
Moreover, Saddam might worry about vulnerability to assassination or extradition if he leaves Iraq.
If he decides to step down, Saddam could join a host of fallen Arab leaders who have sought shelter in other Arab nations, especially Egypt. Egypt hosted 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 in 1985.
Tariq Aziz, Saddam's longtime deputy prime minister, laughed when asked about the prospect of Saddam going into exile.
"Saddam Hussein is a brave leader and a hero, and will remain in his country for a long time, God willing, and will fight until the last Iraqi bullet is fired. We are in it with him," Aziz told BBC radio.
Arab diplomats in Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan say the asylum idea has gained momentum in recent weeks, with Mauritania and Belarus increasingly mentioned as possible sanctuaries. Mauritania has denied the reports.
One diplomat, speaking in Cairo, said Syria sent an emissary to Baghdad last month to persuade the Iraqi leader to accept the asylum solution.
Another diplomat, based in Jordan, said Saddam has been told about the exile plan and guarantees for his safety, but wasn't aware an Iraqi response had been made.
In August, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani visited Baghdad, and newspaper reports said he offered Saddam exile in an unspecified country. Iraqi officials denied the reports, and al-Thani said his visit was aimed only at persuading Saddam to accept the return of U.N. weapons inspectors.
A proposal by Qatar this month to convene an emergency Arab summit has fueled speculation the 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 for March.
Bush administration officials have hinted Saddam might be allowed to go into exile with his family and other regime leaders.
In Washington, Boucher said "it would save all of us a lot of trouble if [Saddam] could be replaced by a regime that was willing to treat its people decently and not threaten its neighbors with weapons of mass destruction.
"At the same time, I don't think we're counting on it," Boucher added. "We're not engaged in any deep or serious discussions on the subject at this point since he's indicated no particular willingness to do that."
Dawood al-Shirian, a Saudi columnist for the London-based Al Hayat daily, said Saddam may "long for exile if he thinks he's going to get killed."
"But I don't think he will be given the chance to seek refuge because that would mean exonerating him and his accomplices of war crimes," said al-Shirian.
Many Iraqis would be opposed to the exile solution, said Abdul-Bari Atwan, editor of the Palestinian newspaper Al Quds published in London.
Sateh Noureddine, managing editor of the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, said he doubted Saddam's exit was being seriously discussed.
"The pressures [on Sadda] are not enough for him to hand over power or for someone inside Iraq to move and try to take power," Noureddine said. "For now it is only talk."
Gary Samore, director of studies at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, said "it's extremely unlikely that Saddam Hussein will decide to give up power voluntarily, even for a nice vacation spot in North Africa.
"I think he believes that if he gives up power it is very likely that it will result in him being endangered," said Samore, a former senior adviser in the Clinton administration.
Samore said Saddam is looking for a way out of the crisis by going along with U.N. weapons inspections.
"He is trying to make it impossible for the U.S. to get support in the [U.N.] Security Council for an invasion," said Samore. "He is trying to save himself."