Just days before U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq, officials claiming to speak for a frantic Iraqi regime made a last-ditch effort to avert war, but U.S. officials rebuffed the overture, the intermediary and U.S. officials said Thursday.
An influential advisor to the Defense Department received a secret message from a Lebanese-American businessman indicating that President Saddam Hussein wanted to make a deal, they said. The businessman, Imad Hage, said Thursday that he believed an opportunity was missed.
But senior U.S. defense and intelligence officials said the offer could not have averted the war. Many such prewar leads were pursued, they said, and the Bush administration viewed them largely as stalling tactics.
"The regime of Saddam Hussein had ample -- well beyond ample -- opportunity to avoid war," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference.
The White House played down the offer.
"The United States exhausted every legitimate and credible opportunity to resolve this peacefully," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said. "Saddam Hussein could have averted military action. He had a number of opportunities to do so."
He noted that the United States had given Hussein 48 hours to leave Iraq and avert war but that the Iraqi president had refused.
McClellan refused to say whether the purported Iraqi effort to avert the war was brought to President Bush's attention.
The chief of the Iraqi Intelligence Service and other Iraqi officials had told Hage that they wanted Washington to know that Iraq no longer had weapons of mass destruction, and they offered to let American troops and experts do an independent search, said officials who discussed the matter on condition of anonymity.
The Iraqi officials also offered to hand over a man accused of being involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing who was being held in Baghdad, an offer that became public in February.
Iraq said long before the war -- and captured officials still insist -- that the country no longer had unconventional weapons. Though none have been found in months of searches, finding the weapons and overthrowing Hussein were the main reasons the Bush administration gave for going to war.
Hage, speaking in Beirut on Thursday, said he had six meetings -- five in Beirut and one in Baghdad -- with senior Iraqi intelligence officials in the three months before the U.S.-led invasion March 20.
He said he believed the Iraqis he spoke to were desperate to avoid war.
"Definitely, these people feared for their life and they realized that the threat was real," Hage said. "They were motivated for some deal, that some deal could be achieved...."
Defense Department officials confirmed the prewar overture. But they dismissed the idea that the offer could have averted war, considering that numerous efforts by others had failed.