WASHINGTON – Top Bush administration officials said Sunday they would welcome Saddam Hussein seeking exile outside Iraq, saying it could avert military action to topple the Iraqi president.
Also, Secretary of State Colin Powell went to the New York headquarters of the United Nations to meet with foreign ministers of Security Council members about Saddam and the Iraq problem.
His first two meetings were with the foreign ministers of China and France, two of the many countries who are not convinced the time is right to use force against Iraq.
North Korea's revived nuclear weapons program also was on the agenda for Powell's separate meetings with China's Tang Jiaxuan and France's Dominique de Villepin.
And Powell met for the first time with Mexico's new foreign minister, Luis Ernesto Dervez.
"Everyone stressed the importance of disarming Iraq," Powell's spokesman, Richard Boucher, said. Powell told them that after the inspectors make a report on Jan. 27, the Security Council should decide on what action to take to achieve disarmament, Boucher said.
In the meantime, reports of averting war by removing Saddam from Baghdad continued to circulate, and top Bush administration officials encouraged that option.
"To avoid a war, I would be personally -- would recommend that some provision be made so that the senior leadership in that country and their families could be provided haven in some other country," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said on ABC's This Week.
"And I think that that would be a fair trade to avoid a war."
On Fox News Sunday, Rumsfeld said Iraq's Arab neighbors are urging Saddam to step down and go into exile in a bid to prevent war. "It would be a good thing for the world if he left," Rumsfeld said. But Saddam and Iraqi Cabinet ministers have said they would fight to the end.
Powell said exile would bring about what the United States has sought since the Clinton administration: a change of leadership in Iraq.
"And the challenge before us then would be to see whether or not that new regime would commit itself to eliminating weapons of mass destruction, satisfying the international community that they are interested in the welfare of their people and not in threatening their own people or threatening their neighbors," Powell said. "And we would have had an entirely new situation presented to the international community, and we might be able to avoid war."
Most of the 15 Security Council members remain opposed to using the military soon, regardless of the contents of a report to the council next Monday by weapons inspectors.
A senior official said Powell was to meet separately with seven ministers, including those of Germany, Mexico and the permanent members China, France and Russia. The official said Powell is trying to agree with his colleagues on a course of action after the Jan. 27 report is in hand.
Also Sunday, American and British planes bombed eight unmanned sites that are part of Iraq's military air defense command and control system, U.S. Central Command said in a statement.
The strikes at about 7:10 a.m. EST came after Iraqi air defense forces fired anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles at coalition planes patrolling the southern no-fly zone over Iraq, according to the statement. The sites were between Al Kut, about 95 miles southeast of Baghdad, and An Nasiriyah, about 170 miles southeast of the capital.
Rumsfeld said he remained hopeful Saddam would consider living elsewhere, or that Iraqis would topple him.
"I think that the people in his country know what a vicious regime he runs, and they may decide to throw him out. He and his family may decide that they've run their string and that they'll leave," Rumsfeld said.
"War is your last choice," he said. "I would be delighted if Saddam Hussein threw in the towel, said, The game's up, the international community has caught me, and I'll just leave."
Some analysts say 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 killed since Saddam came to power in 1979, and the Iraqi leader could face calls for retribution.
Rumsfeld, asked if the United States would be willing to offer Saddam immunity from possible war crimes prosecution, said that was a question for the White House or Justice Department.
At the White House last week, spokesman Ari Fleischer said it would be "a welcome event" if Saddam were to leave Iraq. But Fleischer said "it seemed unlikely that Saddam had any real interest in exile."
President Bush's national security adviser, asked about possible asylum for Saddam, said it would be a good idea to explore any way to have him out of power.
"I just think that it is unlikely that this man is going to come down in any other way than to be forced," Condoleezza Rice said on NBC's Meet the Press.
Though the officials expressed hope war can be avoided, they did not back down from Bush's insistence that Iraq disarm.
"It's not a deadline, but it's an important date, and probably marks the start of a last phase of determining whether the Iraqis have fully complied" with U.N. resolutions, Rice said.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said Bush had yet to make the case for military action.
"We've got to do what [inspectors have] suggested, give them the time to complete their work, to do their job, to ensure that they can satisfy the international community that this effort has been exhausted before we even consider any other action or alternative approach," he said in a televised interview.
He spoke on the second day of anti-war protests in Washington. "As we get closer and closer to the prospect of war, you're going to see more vocal opposition," Daschle said.
While the officials said the inspectors have found no "smoking gun" that proves Iraq still holds weapons of mass destruction, they said the burden is on Iraq to prove it has disarmed.