The Peace Offer that Wasn’t
The story first broke on Nov. 5 on the World Wide Web, reported by Newsweek, ABCnews.com and Knight Ridder Newspapers, but nobody paid attention until the next day when The New York Times featured it on the front page above the fold. According to the Times, which echoed the earlier reports by ABC and KnightRidder, a legitimate peace overture directly from the highest levels of the Baghdad regime had been presented to the U.S. government just days before the conflict began.
The Times strongly implied that the Bush administration wanted nothing less than a complete capitulation of Saddam Hussein and a military occupation of Iraq, and so rejected this apparently genuine offer.
Congressional Democrats and especially the would-be presidential candidates vying against each other for the privilege of being defeated by Bush were all over this story. It appeared to be a made-to-order opportunity to legitimize some of their more extreme accusations against the Bush White House and the Rumsfeld-led Defense Department.
As Newsweek reported the story, about a year ago, Saddam Hussein’s chief of intelligence, Lt. Gen. Tahir Jalil Habbush, supposedly contacted unnamed CIA sources through Syrian intermediaries with a peace offer from Hussein that included, among other things, a willingness to allow U.S. troops into Iraq, and eventually free elections. When the CIA attempted to follow up by arranging meetings with Iraqi officials in Morocco, the Iraqis were a no-show.
Then a Lebanese businessman, Imad El-Hage, apparently contacted the Defense Department’s Michael Maloof, with essentially the same offer. According to Newsweek, El-Hage ran American Underwriters Group, a Beirut-based insurance conglomerate that did extensive business with Charles Taylor, the deposed Liberian dictator. Maloof was investigating the connections between al Qaeda and various Arab governments. He was known for his hawkish views.
The story then becomes convoluted and difficult to follow. The bottom line is that El-Hage’s offer eventually was presented to Defense Policy Board member Richard Perle, who was an advisor to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Under Secretary (Policy) Douglas Feith, and to Jaymie Durnan, special assistant to Wolfowitz. As reported by Newsweek, Durnan and El-Hage actually met on Jan. 28, 2003, but according to Durnan, “It was a nonevent.”
Then in February, Maloof notified the Pentagon that El-Hage had contacted him again, claiming to have met with Saddam aides Habbush, Tariq Aziz, Amer Saadi and Naji Sabri. According to Newsweek, El-Hage told Maloof that these men wanted to discuss with senior U.S. officials “ … Iraqi concessions including support for any U.S. proposals for an Arab/Israel peace plan, cooperation with the United States against terrorists and giving the United States “1st priority” [sic] for Iraqi oil rights.” And later on included additional information that “ … included a plan that would allow the deployment of 5,000 U.S. troops – and possibly other experts – in Iraq as weapons inspectors and a commitment to conduct free elections at some point in the near future.”
On the surface, these overtures seem like something the United States should have taken seriously, and followed up with further meetings and eventual direct contacts with Iraqi officials. The Times, ABC, and Knight-Ridder, however, seem to have glossed over important information that casts significant doubt on El-Hage’s credibility, although the Times and ABC mention it in passing. The day after El-Hage met with Durnan, as he was boarding a flight from Dulles to Lebanon, he was stopped and questioned by U.S. Customs investigators because he had an undeclared .45 cal. semi-automatic pistol and four stun guns in his checked baggage. Since he was traveling under a Liberian Diplomatic Passport, they were unable to hold him.
Subsequently, Durnan was investigated by the FBI, and Maloof lost his high-level security clearance. Eventually both were cleared, and Maloof’s security clearance was restored. The White House and Pentagon judged El-Hage’s offer to be not legitimate.
As quoted by Newsweek, a senior unnamed U.S. intelligence official said in response to their questions: “During the run-up to the war there were a wide variety of people sending signals that some Iraqis might have an interest in negotiation. These signals came via a broad range of foreign intelligence services, other governments, third parties, charlatans and independent actors. Every lead that was at all plausible – and some that weren’t – were followed up. In the end, we were aware of no one in a position to make any deal anywhere near acceptable to the United States .”
Despite such credible information that was readily available to anyone who bothered to dig a little, the Times, ABC, and Knight-Ridder chose to report the story in a manner that cast serious doubts on the Bush administration. Only Newsweek reported the story in context so that readers could properly understand what had really happened, and why the administration chose to ignore the “offer.”
And this still begs the question of why this particular story hit the wires on Nov. 5 in the first place.
Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor