-- Three top Bush administration officials said today they would welcome exile for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and one, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, signaled the United States might allow Hussein to escape war crimes prosecution if he voluntarily steps down.
The remarks came as the administration increasingly faces resistance from other members of the U.N. Security Council for a quick decision on military action. Previously, officials said they could not presume to speak for the Iraqi people or other nations that might want to charge Hussein for killing thousands of Iraqis since he seized power in 1979. Today's comments appeared to be a signal to Hussein that a bargain might be in the offing.
"To avoid a war, I would personally recommend that some provision be made so that the senior leadership in that country and their families could be provided haven in some other country," Rumsfeld said on ABC's "This Week." "I think that that would be a fair trade to avoid a war."
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, who also made the rounds of the Sunday morning talk shows, appeared as well to support the idea of granting Hussein and his closest associates some form of asylum. In the past week, a group of Arab nations has begun to organize an effort to persuade Hussein to resign.
Hussein, through his spokesmen, has repeatedly denied any interest in avoiding a fight. He would likely try to win detailed assurances on his safety before leaving, in order to avoid the fate of Yugoslavia's former leader, Slobodan Milosevic, now in the dock in The Hague.
Rumsfeld said it would be up to the White House or Justice Department whether Hussein could avoid prosecution.
Rice said it would be a good idea to explore any way to have Hussein out of power. But, she said on NBC's "Meet the Press," "I just think that it is unlikely that this man is going to come down in any other way than to be forced."
Powell, interviewed on CBS's "Face the Nation," said, "I would encourage Saddam Hussein, if he is getting any messages of this kind, to listen."
He said that Hussein's departure would bring about the "regime change" long sought by the United States.
"The challenge before us then would be to see whether or not that new regime would commit itself to eliminating weapons of mass destruction, satisfying the international community that they are interested in the welfare of their people and not in threatening their own people or threatening their neighbors," Powell said. "And we would have had an entirely new situation presented to the international community, and we might be able to avoid war."
"War is your last choice," Rumsfeld said. "I would be delighted if Saddam Hussein threw in the towel, said, 'The game's up, the international community has caught me, and I'll just leave.' "
Administration officials said a crucial report next week by U.N. arms inspectors on Iraq's cooperation would mark the final stage in an effort to disarm Iraq, possibly by force.
The United States has begun to build up a large military force in the region; U.S. and British planes today again attacked air defense sites in Iraq's southern "no-fly" zone.
Anti-war demonstrators in Washington, meanwhile, marked a second day of protests with marches near the White House.
Powell arrived here tonight to meet at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel with the foreign ministers of France, China and Mexico. He will meet with others, including the German and Russian foreign ministers, on Monday at the United Nations. As permanent members, France, Russia and China have veto power over Security Council resolutions and have been the most skeptical about the U.S. drive to confront Iraq.
"He's making the point that the issue is disarmament," a senior State Department official said tonight. "And without Iraqi cooperation and peacefully disarming, the inspection process is not going to succeed."
Arms inspections have not yet uncovered compelling evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction programs. Administration officials today stressed that the inspections are a test of Iraqi cooperation rather than a way to find hidden arms.
They said the burden was on Iraq to prove it has disarmed, rather than the job of the inspectors to find a "smoking gun" in a country as vast as Iraq.
"The test is, is Saddam Hussein cooperating?" Rumsfeld said on "Fox News Sunday." "He's not doing that."
He said a conclusion on Iraqi cooperation can be made "in a matter of weeks, not in months or years."
Asked whether the Bush administration could make a compelling case for an attack on Iraq, he said, "It is a case the American people would be comfortable with."
But Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said Bush had yet to make the case for military action.
"We've got to do what [inspectors have] suggested, give them the time to complete their work, to do their job, to ensure that they can satisfy the international community that this effort has been exhausted before we even consider any other action or alternative approach," Daschle said on CNN's "Late Edition."