Iraqi Peace Bid?

This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, November 6, 2003, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Faced with the mightiest war machine on the planet, Saddam Hussein (search) had to know he did not have a chance. And in the final months and days leading up to the war, it looks like Iraq was frantically trying to cut some kind of a deal. National security correspondent Bret Baier live now have at the Pentagon. Hi, Bret.

BRET BAIER, FOX NEWS NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Hi, John. That is the question. Could the U.S. have brokered some sort of back channel deal with the Iraqis to have peace before the beginning of the war? The answer from all corners of the administration today is no. There are several reports that high-level Iraqi leaders were trying to broker some sort of peace deal. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld as well as White House officials today saying that every effort was exhausted to go after legitimate and credible efforts toward peace. But Saddam Hussein made the final choice. He chose not to comply.

Now the story is coming in part from a Lebanese-American businessman, Imad El-Hage who says that Saddam's chief of intelligence laid out terms for a peace deal and was trying to convince the U.S. government the Iraqis were serious.


IMAD EL-HAGE, AMERICAN UNDERWRITERS GROUP: It seemed at a time that the U.S. military build-up, the threat of use of force was achieving its objective. The Iraqis were prepared to make concessions, substantial concessions.


BAIER: Now U.S. intelligence officials tell Fox News that in the build-up to the war with Iraq, many different groups sent signals that key Iraqis were willing to negotiate some kind of deal to avoid war. But officials say every lead that was thought to have some amount of plausibility and even some that didn't were followed up. None were found to be legitimate and officials say people who were offering to talk were not in any position to offer anything acceptable to the United States. Now intelligence officials telling Fox there were several attempts to meet with Iraqi intelligence personnel and each time, quote, "Those officers were no-shows."

Here's how Secretary Rumsfeld responded to the story today.


DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I would add that the regime of Saddam Hussein had ample, well beyond ample opportunities to avoid war. There was something like 18 -- ultimately 18 U.N. resolutions. There was a declaration where they had the opportunity. The president gave a last- chance ultimatum.


BAIER: Now officials on all corners of the Bush administration today getting in front of this, saying that all plausible efforts for peace with the Iraqis were attempted and failed - John.

GIBSON: All right. Bret Baier at the Pentagon. Of course, the man at the center of this, Imad El-Hage. And earlier today, when I spoke to El-Hage, he said he didn't know why the Iraqis approached him, but he wasn't surprised, given the secretive nature of Middle Eastern regimes. So, what kind of deal did Iraq offer before the war started? That was today's big question.


EL-HAGE: The fact of the matter is that during the second part of January, a friend of mine visited me with an Iraqi official who introduced himself as a director of Iraqi intelligence service. It seemed at the time the U.S. military buildup, the threat of use of force was achieving its objective. The Iraqis were prepared to make concessions -- substantial concessions. He visited me at the office. I would to make it clear I had no prior dealings with him and-or the Iraqi regime. He was under visible psychological stress. He stressed that he didn't understand why the United States attack Iraq. He stressed that Iraq does not want a confrontation with the United States, that Iraq was prepared to cooperate with the United States' war against terrorism. He also stressed that the United States did not possess weapons of mass destruction.

GIBSON: You mean Iraq did not.

EL-HAGE: Did not, yes. These were his claims during his first visit. He went further to state to me that the Iraqis are willing to receive around 1,000, 2,000 U.S. agents, FBI or scientists, to verify the nonexistence of the weapons of mass destruction.

GIBSON: Mr. El-Hage, you later went to Baghdad and met with Tahir Habbush, who was head of Iraqi intelligence. Did he essentially lay out the same offer?

EL-HAGE: Yes. We went to Baghdad and I thought it was the right thing to do at the time. I met with Mr. Tahir Jalil Habbush, the head of the Iraqi intelligence. He, specifically reiterated what Dr. Hassan had stated in my office. Again, he didn't understand why the United States was preparing to attack Iraq, that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction, that Iraq wants to cooperate with the United States and its war on terrorism, that Iraq in the past itself had confronted terrorism, specifically he'd mentioned five specific points. Iraq does not possess weapons of mass destruction. He invited a thousand or 2,000 U.S. agents to come and verify that. He made it clear if it's about oil. U.S. companies are welcome to -- they will have priority in terms of pricing oil contracts, drilling.

In terms of terrorism, to show good faith, he had indicated that he had made attempts prior to that to deliver a well-known terrorist, Abdul Rahman Yasin (search), who was involved in the World Trade Center bombing to the United States government. He even asked me if I would be willing to take delivery. I said, no, I wouldn't be willing to take delivery of him and said his head is worth $25 million. They are willing to give him up to demonstrate good faith. I said I can convey that to France and the United States. But it should be clear that I do not represent the United States government, nor am I ...

GIBSON: Now Mr. El-Hage, you did meet with a very important person in the Bush administration or at least on the periphery of the administration. That's Richard Perle who was a member of the Pentagon advisory board and is thought to be very close to Don Rumsfeld and others in the administration. What did he say when you presented this offer to him?

EL-HAGE: Yes. You know, after my trip to Baghdad, I communicated this Iraqi offer and the concessions that I thought were substantial to my friend at the Pentagon. Meantime, I conveyed it to Richard Perle. Richard was on his way to London and I had other underwriting business in London. I met with him and he listened very carefully to these Iraqi concessions. He had indicated that he will take this information back to Washington, that he would be willing to meet with the Iraqis to discuss these concessions, provided he obtained the OK from higher ups. He went back to Washington and later called him and he indicated that he could not obtain such a blessing.

GIBSON: Mr. El-Hage, thank you very much. Appreciate you coming on.

EL-HAGE: Thank you, Mr. Gibson.


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