March 19, 2003
AMMAN, Jordan -- Iraq greeted with disdain an ultimatum for Saddam Hussein to step down or face immediate war. But Hussein has long seen unpredictability as his greatest weapon, and there are indications some Iraqi officials are at least entertaining the thought.
Like much in Hussein's Iraq, any departure would be expected only at the very last minute.
Hussein has resisted calls for his ouster for years. The main political force in Iraq since 1968, he became president in 1979 and has steadily expanded his grip on the nation's politics, military, society and culture.
The United States has suggested exile for more than a decade. In 1991, Egypt offered Hussein haven to avert the Persian Gulf War, but he declined and emerged with his presidency intact.
Arab initiatives have intensified during the past year, with several governments sending messages suggesting Hussein leave. Last month, the United Arab Emirates publicly called on him to resign.
An Arab League delegation was expected to raise the possibility with the 65-year-old Iraqi president last week, but Iraq refused to receive it.
Most analysts say the likelihood of Hussein resigning is slim.
"It goes against everything he stands for," said Robert Malley, Middle East program director for the Washington think tank International Crisis Group.
"This is not his nature," said Jordanian political analyst Labib Kamhawi. "I don't think the Americans would have given him this opportunity if they had even the faintest idea he would accept it, because the Americans want war."
Iraq itself brushed aside the scenario.
"He will stay in place like a solid rock," Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf told al-Jazeera television after President Bush gave Hussein 48 hours to step down or face war.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri told reporters Tuesday that it was "Bush who should go into exile, because it is Mr. Bush who is endangering the whole world."
Hussein's eldest son, Uday, asserted Bush is "unstable" and "should give up power in America with his family."
Iraq's al-Shabab television, owned by Uday, said the decision to defy Bush's ultimatum was made in a joint meeting of the Revolution Command Council -- Iraq's highest executive body -- and the leadership of the ruling Baath Party, and that Hussein chaired the session.
But Iraqi officials are indicating that while still remote, Hussein's resignation is not the impossibility it once was thought to be.
Arab officials familiar with the last year's secret initiatives to urge Hussein to resign -- all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity -- said efforts were continuing and shouldn't be counted out.
Surprises are the norm with Hussein, who has built a career on unpredictability. Shortly after assuming the presidency, Hussein summed up his political philosophy: keep opponents off guard.
"What is politics?" he asked top officials. "Politics is when you say you are going to do one thing while intending to do another. Then you do neither what you said nor what you intended."
The Associated Press, quoting two unnamed Western diplomats, reported that highly placed officials in the Iraqi government had discussed the scenario of Hussein leaving.
Neither described the possibility as likely, but the fact that it was being talked about -- something that until recently could have gotten an official killed -- was an indication taboos are being broken.
Many Iraqis would have trouble envisioning life without Hussein. His face adorns nearly every block in Baghdad.
Baghdad's international airport bears his name, as do schools, hospitals, roads, factories and the capital's largest suburb.
But his once awe-inspiring place in the Iraqi psyche has been humbled recently.
Iraqi television aired a Hussein interview with CBS anchor Dan Rather in full -- complete with questions about the possibility of his resignation.
Hussein's television appearances, once dominated by blustery speeches in military uniform, have portrayed a more human president of late, presiding over meetings wearing a three-piece suit and leaning back in his chair.
The AP, quoting unnamed Iraqi dissident sources in London, reported that Iraqi officials have won approval from neighboring Iran for Hussein's family to go there in case of war, although the offer apparently didn't include the Iraqi leader himself.
It is unclear what kind of exile Hussein would face. Arab officials say six non-Arab countries have offered to take him in.
If he left, he presumably could face prosecution as a war criminal or assassination by any number of bitter enemies.
Hussein himself has praised the idea of martyrdom, telling Rather that resigning under pressure would be "not true to the principles."
"We will die here," he said. "We will die in this country, and we will maintain our honor ... in front of our people."