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Baghdad Made Overture to Avert U.S. War

By PAULINE JELINEK, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON - 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 the war, but U.S. officials rebuffed the overture, Pentagon officials said Thursday.

An influential adviser to the Defense Department received a secret message from a Lebanese-American businessman indicating that Saddam Hussein wanted to make a deal, they said.

The chief of the Iraqi Intelligence Service and other Iraqi officials had told the businessman that they wanted Washington to know that Iraq no longer had weapons of mass destruction and offered to let American troops and experts do an independent search, said officials, who discussed the matter only 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, they said.

Iraq said long before the war and captured officials still maintain that the country had no unconventional weapons. Though none has been found in seven months of searching, finding the weapons and overthrowing Saddam were the main reasons the Bush administration gave for going to war.

Defense Department officials confirmed some details of the prewar overture, first reported late Wednesday by ABC News and The New York Times.

But they dismissed the idea that the offers could have averted war, since numerous other efforts by the United Nations and others had failed.

"Iraq and Saddam had ample opportunity through highly credible sources over a period of several years to take action to avoid war and had the means to use highly credible channels to do that," said Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita.

"Nobody needed to use questionable channels to convey messages," he said in a statement.

Messages from Baghdad, first relayed by the businessman in February to an analyst in the office of Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy and planning, were part of an attempt by Iraqi officers to persuade the Bush administration to open talks through a clandestine channel, people involved in the discussion told the Times.

The attempts were portrayed by Iraqi officials as having Saddam's endorsement, but it was not clear if American officials viewed them as legitimate.

In early March, Richard Perle, an adviser to top Pentagon officials, met in London with the Lebanese-American businessman, Imad Hage, officials said. According to both men, Hage laid out the Iraqis' position and pressed the Iraqi request for a direct meeting with Perle or other U.S. representatives.

The CIA authorized Perle's meeting with the Iraqis, but eventually told him they didn't want to pursue the channel.

The Times quoted internal Pentagon e-mails from Mike Maloof, the analyst in Feith's office, to an aide to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, outlining the Iraqi overtures. It was unclear, however, if top officials at the Pentagon pursued the matter. Maloof, who lost his security clearance over another issue, is on paid administrative leave from the Pentagon.

Hage previously lived in suburban Washington, where he started an insurance company. He moved to Lebanon in the 1990s and has been trying for 10 years to break into politics there but so far with little success.

He could not be reached immediately in Lebanon for comment.

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