WASHINGTON -- Intermediaries for ousted dictator Saddam Hussein made numerous attempts to open secret contacts with the Bush administration to head off a US-led invasion of Iraq, but the administration rebuffed or ignored the efforts, US officials said yesterday.
Early this year, a Lebanese-American businessman, Imad Haje, relayed word that Hussein would allow US specialists and troops into Iraq to verify that he had no weapons of mass destruction, said the officials, who requested anonymity.
Haje sent his message through a Department of Defense official, F. Michael Maloof, who was involved in a Pentagon effort to find links between Hussein and Osama bin Laden, and through Richard Perle, the head of a Pentagon advisory panel who was a leading advocate of invading Iraq.
US officials said none of the approaches went anywhere. They were deemed either fraudulent or attempts by Hussein to stall for time to allow international opposition to a US-led attack to build, they said.
"They were all nonstarters because they all involved Saddam staying in power," said a senior administration official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because intelligence matters are classified.
The Bush administration publicly refused to negotiate with Hussein. It demanded that he abide by UN resolutions that required Iraq to cooperate unconditionally with UN arms inspectors and make a full accounting of its illicit biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons programs.
President Bush rejected Hussein's assertions that he had no illicit weapons programs and declared that only the Iraqi leader's unconditional surrender or departure from Iraq could avert war.
A second senior US official said that in the months before the March invasion, individuals, foreign governments, and intelligence services contacted the United States with what they said were Iraqi offers to discuss Bush's grievances against Hussein.
"Whenever it [an approach] was relatively plausible, we sent word that we were ready to listen," said the second senior US official. "But the Iraqis never showed up."
The first approach came more than a year ago, when self-declared intermediaries for Hussein contacted the CIA and offered to meet in Morocco. The Iraqis never showed up for the meeting, US officials said.
In another instance, Osama al Baz, the national security adviser to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a US ally, sent a message via intermediaries to the State Department that Iraqi officials wanted to discuss US allegations that Hussein was hiding biological and chemical weapons and was supporting Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
After that approach also went nowhere, the officials said, the Iraqis evidently tried to get through to the Pentagon.
Weeks before the war, another approach was made through Haje, an aspiring politician in Lebanon and president of the Beirut-based American Underwriters Group, which has an office in Vienna, Va., and extensive business dealings in the Middle East and Africa.
According to a defense official, Haje contacted Maloof about a month before the war began and said Iraqi officials had asked him to open a secret channel to the Bush administration.
The discussions between Haje and the Iraqis began in Beirut, but at one point, the businessman went to Baghdad to meet with senior Iraqi officials.
The Iraqi officials included General Tahir Jalil Habbush al Tikriti, Hussein's intelligence chief and the jack of diamonds on the US playing cards depicting the most-wanted members of the regime, and the former deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz.
The New York Times reported that in the Baghdad meeting, Habbush even offered to hand over to the United States Yasser Abdul Yassin, who has been indicted in connection with the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Yassin fled to Iraq after that attack, and the United States has offered a $25 million reward for his capture. Haje said he gave the information to US authorities.
Hussein wanted to avert a war and was ready to discuss allowing US inspectors and US troops into Iraq to verify his contentions that Iraq was not secretly stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, said the defense official.
"More than 5,000 troops were being proposed," said the defense official. Like the other US officials, the defense official spoke on condition that he was not identified.
The Iraqi offer was conveyed to Haje because the Iraqis knew he was acquainted with Maloof, who had close ties to hard-liners in the Pentagon who were pushing for an invasion, the defense official said.
Maloof and David Wurmser, who now works for Vice President Dick Cheney, oversaw a Pentagon effort to find evidence that Hussein was supporting bin Laden's terrorist operations.
Maloof believed Haje was conveying a "serious offer" and took his message to other Pentagon officials. They included Jaymie Durnan, the chief of staff to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, a military aide to Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith and Perle, said the defense official.
Perle agreed to pursue the matter if he received approval from the administration, but the go-ahead never came. Perle was not available for comment last night. But he told the Times that when he contacted CIA officials, they declined to pursue the matter. "The message was, `Tell them that we will see them in Baghdad,' " Perle told the newspaper.
One reason may have been because Haje was detained at Dulles International Airport, near Washington, last January for trying to carry a handgun out of the United States without an export license. He was not charged and was permitted to leave the country.
Maloof declined to comment.