Hassan M. Fattah
The International Herald Tribune

This article has been published on November 3

Months before the invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein tentatively accepted a proposal to go into exile and avert war, but Arab leaders scuttled the deal, unable to reach consensus on it, senior officials in the United Arab Emirates have disclosed.
Sheik Muhammad bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, told the pan-Arab news channel Al Arabiya on Saturday that his father, the late president, Sheik Zayed al-Nahyan, had received tentative acceptance. Saddam was to go into exile before the invasion of Iraq, in exchange for amnesty and protection.
The sheik's report is the first official admission that Saddam was considering stepping down under the deal, which was presented at emergency Arab League summit talks at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik in March 2003, weeks before the invasion. The proposal sought to avert the war.
"We had gotten final agreement from the different parties, the main players in the world and the person concerned - Saddam Hussein," Muhammad told Al Arabiya in a program commemorating the one-year anniversary of his father's death.
A senior Emirates official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue, said that representatives of the Emirates had met with Saddam on four occasions. He said Saddam appeared serious about a deal, but he said Saddam demanded that the Arab League back the offer before he would commit to it. "Saddam accepted the concept," the official said. "Up till the last minute, there was an O.K. on the principle."
Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the Emirates minister of information and culture, also said in a statement that Saddam had said he "would respond favorably to our proposal."
Emirates officials did not produce any evidence to back up the claim, and they stressed that Saddam's cooperation was far from guaranteed.
But when the plan was presented to the Arab League in an emergency session just weeks before the war, debate on the measure was squelched, Emirates officials said. The Iraqi delegation, unaware of the back-channel negotiations, scoffed at the proposal and general apathy pushed it aside. Arab League officials say the initiative was circulated but never debated.
"You can't surprise summits with something of this magnitude," said a senior source at the Arab League who was at the emergency session at the time. "Maybe it came too late, or it could have been better served by some confidential lobbying of the idea. But at the end of the day, this is all history."