WASHINGTON – Less than a month before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Saddam Hussein signaled that he was willing to go into exile as long as he could take with him $1 billion and information on weapons of mass destruction, according to a report of a Feb. 22, 2003 meeting between President Bush and the Spanish Prime Minister, the Washington Post reported Thursday.
The White House was preparing to introduce a tough new Security Council resolution to pressure Hussein, but most council members saw it as a ploy to gain their authorization for war, the paper reported.
Jose Maria Aznar, Spain's prime minister at the time, expressed hope that war might be avoided — or at least supported by a U.N. majority — and Bush said that outcome would be "the best solution for us" and "would also save us $50 billion," referring to the initial U.S. estimate of what the Iraq war would cost. But Bush made it clear in the meeting that he expected to "be in Baghdad at the end of March," said the Washington Post.
White House spokesman Gordon D. Johndroe declined to comment on the report in El Pais, which also posted what it said was a leaked transcript of the meeting on its Web site. "We're more focused on the task at hand rather than 2003," Johndroe said. A senior administration official knowledgeable about the meeting said he doubted the $1 billion claim — an offer reportedly transmitted through Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak — but said he could not be sure. He said the general account of the meeting sounded plausible but did not offer details, the Post reported.
According to the published report, the account offered a rare glimpse of how Bush interacted with a trusted foreign leader, offering blunt assessments and showing a determination that led even Aznar, a close ally on Iraq, to ask that Bush show "a little more patience" in the march toward war. Bush expressed anger and irritation at those governments that disagreed with him, warning that they would pay a price. He directed particular scorn toward then-French President Jacques Chirac, one of the most public opponents of invasion, saying Chirac "sees himself as Mr. Arab."