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Intermediary: Iraq talks deserved a chance

Businessman Imad Hage
Businessman Imad Hage

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Lebanese-American businessman Imad Hage tells CNN's Bill Hemmer that Iraqi officials offered to make major concessions to avert war. (November 7)
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Imad Hage
Bill Hemmer

(CNN) -- A Lebanese-American businessman says that before the war he met separately with Iraqi officials and a Pentagon adviser in England in secret negotiations that could have averted the U.S. invasion.

Imad Hage says he was asked to broker a deal on the eve of the conflict. However, Pentagon officials say Iraq could have gone through official channels if Baghdad was serious about opening negotiations.

CNN Anchor Bill Hemmer spoke with Hage about his role in the alleged secret diplomacy.

HAGE: The fact of the matter, Bill, is that the Iraqis at some stage, through the director of intelligence, visited me in Beirut [Lebanon], had indicated that [they] would be willing to allow between 1,000 to 2,000 U.S. agents, FBI and/or scientists, into Iraq to verify, according to them, the absence of weapons of mass destruction or that they no longer had weapons of mass destruction.

The second point, they offered to turn over Abdul Rahman Yasin, [under indictment in] the World Trade Center bombing in 1993.

And on the third issue, they offered to hold free and fair elections in Iraq within a year or two.

They kept on asking why they were targeted or they would be targeted, that they didn't wish confrontation with the United States. If it was about oil, they'd be willing to make concessions on oil.

HEMMER: With whom did you talk within the Iraqi inner circle? Did you ever meet with [President] Saddam Hussein?

HAGE: No, no, I never met with Saddam Hussein. I had no intention. As a matter of fact, when I went with my friend, I didn't even know who I was to be meeting. But the gentleman I met was the head of the Iraqi security agencies or the head of Iraqi intelligence. His name was Tahir Jalil Habbush [Al-Tikriti].

HEMMER: You obviously believe the Iraqis. Knowing the years of deception ... and the claims Saddam Hussein has made against inspectors in his own country, why would you consider them credible?

HAGE: Well, let me state some facts. I at no time stated that I do believe the Iraqis. Given the extent of concessions that I thought were substantial, that it was [worthwhile] for some U.S. official to talk to these people. And I wanted to step aside, and it was up to the administration to decide what to do with this information.

I agree with you that the history of Saddam Hussein is one of deception. Yet ... I believe that somebody at least should give this a shot, and if these concessions are real, we could avert war, we could avert innocent loss of life.

HEMMER: Are you suggesting through all of this that war could have been averted?

HAGE: I cannot be so sure, Bill, if it could have been averted or not. But at least I thought that this effort should have been given a chance.

HEMMER: Are you saying that the Iraqi officials did not want war?

HAGE: Well, at least the people that talked to me ... I could feel [they were] trying desperately to get a deal cut.

HEMMER: Also, there's a report out there that indicates that a meeting was up in Morocco in which the Iraqis did not show, which again goes back to the point that they [might not have taken] this offer seriously. As we sit here today, tell us why we should believe you and that story.

HAGE: Well, I'm not asking anybody to believe me. I'm just stating the facts. As I told you, had it not been through reporters and leaks in Washington, this story would have died with me. Unfortunately, I was put in this situation by reporters who got access to memos and documentations and e-mails passed from me to people at the Pentagon and/or Richard Perle [a member of the Defense Policy Board, an independent group that advises Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld].

And, as such, they have decided to go public with stories. And when they contacted me, I was given a choice, either you could verify this information or we would with or without you. These articles will be published.

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