By Karen DeYoung and Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 27, 2007
Less than a month before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein signaled that he was willing to go into exile as long as he could take with him $1 billion and information on weapons of mass destruction, according to a report of a Feb. 22, 2003, meeting between President Bush and his Spanish counterpart published by a Spanish newspaper yesterday.
The meeting at Bush's Texas ranch was a planning session for a final diplomatic push at the United Nations. The White House was preparing to introduce a tough new Security Council resolution to pressure Hussein, but most council members saw it as a ploy to gain their authorization for war.
Spain's prime minister at the time, Jose Maria Aznar, expressed hope that war might be avoided -- or at least supported by a U.N. majority -- and Bush said that outcome would be "the best solution for us" and "would also save us $50 billion," referring to the initial U.S. estimate of what the Iraq war would cost. But Bush made it clear in the meeting that he expected to "be in Baghdad at the end of March."
"It's like Chinese water torture," he said of the U.N. negotiations. "We've got to put an end to it."
White House spokesman Gordon D. Johndroe declined to comment on the report in El Pais, which also posted what it said was a leaked transcript of the meeting on its Web site. "We're more focused on the task at hand rather than 2003," Johndroe said. A senior administration official knowledgeable about the meeting said he doubted the $1 billion claim -- an offer reportedly transmitted through Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak -- but said he could not be sure. He said the general account of the meeting sounded plausible but did not offer details.
A press official at the Spanish Embassy in Washington said no one was available to comment.
The account offered a rare glimpse of how Bush interacted with a trusted foreign leader, offering blunt assessments and showing a determination that led even Aznar, a close ally on Iraq, to ask that Bush show "a little more patience" in the march toward war. Bush expressed anger and irritation at those governments that disagreed with him, warning that they would pay a price. He directed particular scorn toward then-French President Jacques Chirac, one of the most public opponents of invasion, saying Chirac "sees himself as Mr. Arab."
Although Bush's public position at the time of the meeting was that the door remained open for a diplomatic solution, hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops had already been deployed to Iraq's border, and the White House had made its impatience clear. "Time is short," Bush said in a news conference with Aznar the same day.
El Pais, a leading Spanish daily and a critic of the war, said the transcript of the conversation was prepared by Spain's ambassador to the United States, Javier Ruperez, who was at the meeting in Crawford. The newspaper did not say how it obtained the memo.
In the transcript, translated from Spanish by The Washington Post, Bush said that Europeans were insensitive to "the suffering that Saddam Hussein has inflicted on the Iraqis" and added: "Maybe it's because he's dark-skinned, far away and Muslim -- a lot of Europeans think he's okay." But Bush was happy to play the "bad cop," he said. "The more the Europeans attack me, the stronger I am in the United States."
Aznar stressed the importance of U.N. authorization, saying "it was not the same" to act without it. Bush agreed to continue trying to persuade Security Council members, saying that "countries like Mexico, Chile, Angola and Cameroon ought to know that the security of the United States is at stake. [Chilean President Ricardo] Lagos ought to know that the Free Trade Agreement with Chile is waiting for Senate confirmation and that a negative attitude on this could endanger ratification.
"Angola is getting money from the Millennium Account, and those agreements could also be in danger if they don't show themselves to be favorable. And [Russian President Vladimir] Putin ought to know that his attitude is endangering relations" with Washington.
Aznar and the other leading Bush ally on Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, were under intense antiwar pressure at home. Bush needed to appear serious about diplomacy to "help us with our public opinion," Aznar said.
"I'm not asking for infinite patience," Aznar said, but "simply that you do what's possible to get everyone to agree." He asked Bush to expand on reports that Hussein might be persuaded to go into exile.
"The Egyptians are talking to Saddam Hussein," Bush said. "He seems to have indicated he would be open to exile if they would let him take one billion dollars and all the information he wants on weapons of mass destruction."
Later in the conversation, Aznar returned to the subject. "Is it true there's a possibility Saddam Hussein might go into exile?"
"Yes, it's possible," Bush responded. "It's also possible he could be assassinated." In any case, Bush said, there would be "no guarantee" for Hussein. "He's a thief, a terrorist and a war criminal. Compared to Saddam, [former Yugoslav president Slobodan] Milosevic would be a Mother Teresa."
Bush noted that he had gone to the United Nations "despite differences in my own administration" and said it would be "great" if the proposed resolution was successful.
"The only thing that worries me is your optimism," Aznar said.
"I'm optimistic because I believe I'm right," Bush replied. "I'm at peace with myself."