Sep 21 2003

From Paul Martin In Baghdad

SADDAM Hussein has been in secret negotiations with US forces in Iraq for the past nine days, we can reveal.

The Iraqi dictator is demanding safe passage to the former Soviet republic of Belarus. In exchange, he has vowed to provide information on weapons of mass destruction and disclose bank accounts where he siphoned off tens of millions of dollars in plundered cash.

President Bush is being kept abreast of the extraordinary talks by his National Security advisor Condoleezza Rice. She is co-ordinating negotiations in Baghdad which are led by Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of American forces in Iraq.

The United States has vowed never to negotiate with Saddam and want to take him dead or alive, but the White House hopes the clandestine talks will allow them to pinpoint the tyrant's exact location.

Saddam's English-speaking representative walked into the US HQ at Tikrit - the dictator's home town - on September 12 and asked to talk to senior officers.

He then led a group of US troops to a nearby suburb where one of Saddam's loyal security chiefs was waiting. The US officers were handed a hand-written note, purportedly from Saddam himself.

The security boss had a British-made Racal military radio set which he claimed gave him direct contact with people in the same room as the dictator. The radio is notoriously difficult to monitor.

He was immediately taken into custody, but the US has continued to exchange messages with Saddam using the radio and other means.

A senior Iraqi told The Sunday Mirror last night: "A representative of Saddam dressed in Western-style civilian clothes came to coalition people at Tikrit at sunset on September 12. He led them to a house where the security official was waiting.

"The discussions are now going on under the direct authority of General Sanchez. Naturally all the major decisions are being made at the level of the National Security Council, under Condoleezza Rice."

He maintained that Saddam had decided to seek a deal "because he is desperate, trapped and finding fewer and fewer people willing to give him shelter."

He added: "He resorts to arriving with a posse of armed men, and forcing them to give him hospitality. When he leaves the frightened 'hosts' are told they'll be killed if they say a word."

It is believed the US authorities will simply string Saddam along, aiming to track the go-betweens until they know exactly where to find the rogue leader.

"There's no doubt the net is closing, and that his supporters' efforts to get the Americans to pull out of Iraq are not succeeding," said the source.

"They can cause disruption and problems, but this does not bring Saddam any nearer to coming back to power, and he now knows it. The negotiators will try to keep the line of communication open as long as possible, but the word from Washington is: 'No deal'."

Saddam left strong hints that he was willing to talk in his last audio tape on Wednesday. It had a strongly defiant tone, but contained two significant indications that he was keen for a deal:

-SADDAM addressed the US president directly and gave him a possible get-out for a negotiated surrender. "There might be some who lied to you, but you believed those lies," he said, hinting that coalition intelligence was badly wrong.

-HE added: "If you want to discuss the withdrawal arrangements, some of the officials in the leadership arrested by your army ... you can contact them and hold a suitable dialogue."

Although Saddam was still proposing an unconditional American withdrawal from Iraq, coalition chiefs took his latest statement as a willingness to talk.

Since the fall of Baghdad in April the dictator has remained on the run.

Saddam-hunters say he moves disguised as a peasant or labourer in a long white dishdasha (gown), especially in remote countryside.

Fearing he will be spotted and betrayed, he seldom stays in one place for more than two hours. He is often sheltered by tribal leaders whom he appointed to replace the real leaders during his reign of terror.

"They owe their very existence and their status and money to him, so they feel a strong obligation," said one hunter.

"But the feeling of obligation gets less and less as time passes and the pressure mounts."

He is also believed to have made brief visits to Baghdad in brazen defiance of the occupying US forces.

One senior Iraqi told me: "He had set up over 1,000 hiding places before the fall, and I guess he goes from one to the other these days. When he was in power, even cabinet ministers wouldn't know where meetings were to be held.

"They were taken to a small bus, or if they were very senior the security sent a car. He's been a master of survival."

Saddam hunters have issued several photofit images of how he might look.

He has apparently run out of black hair-dye and will almost certainly have white hair.

"He's moving every two hours and he's not staying set," said Colonel Don Campbell, chief of staff of the 4th Infantry Division. "He has to."

Saddam has demanded to go to Belarus, the former Soviet republic which still has a president and leadership descended from the old guard Communist Party era.

Before the war the Americans told Saddam he could leave the country, but he spurned the offer.

Since then President Bush has rejected any idea of making a deal with the ousted leader and has put a $25million dead-or-alive bounty on his head.

-AN American soldier shot and killed a tiger in Baghdad's zoo after it attacked a colleague who had put his arms through the bars to feed it. "They turned up after the zoo was closed and were both drunk", an Iraqi keeper said.

Sunday Mirror original article