MADRID Saddam Hussein was prepared to take $1 billion and go into exile before the Iraq war, according to a transcript of talks between U.S. President George W. Bush and an ally, Spanish newspaper El Pais reported on Wednesday.
During a meeting at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, on February 22, 2003, Bush told former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar that Saddam could also be assassinated, according to the transcript published in El Pais in Spanish.
In Washington, White House National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe declined to comment on the report.
"The Egyptians are speaking to Saddam Hussein. It seems he's indicated he would be prepared to go into exile if he's allowed to take $1 billion and all the information he wants about weapons of mass destruction," Bush was quoted as saying at the meeting one month before the U.S.-led invasion.
Asked by Aznar whether Saddam could really leave, Bush replied: "Yes, that possibility exists. Or he might even be assassinated."
A spokesman for Aznar's private foundation had no comment on the transcript or its authenticity. El Pais, which was critical of the Iraq war and of Aznar's government, did not say how it obtained the transcript which it said was made by a Spanish diplomat who attended the meeting.
In it, Bush spoke openly about pressuring countries who were members of the United Nations Security Council at the time to support a resolution authorizing force, but that, whatever happened: "We'll be in Baghdad by the end of March."
"(Former Chilean President Ricardo) Lagos should know that the Free Trade Agreement with Chile still has to be approved by the Senate, and that a negative attitude on this could endanger its approval," he said, adding aid to Angola also depended on U.N. support.
"And (Russian President Vladimir) Putin should know that his attitude is endangering Russia's relations with the United States," he was quoted as saying.
"For my part, I'll try as of now to use the most subtle rhetoric possible, while we try to get the resolution approved."
Bush was dismissive about former French President Jacques Chirac, who he said "thinks he's Mr. Arab" and described the United States as playing a game of "good cop, bad cop" with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
"I don't mind being the bad cop if Blair is the good cop," Bush said.
The U.S. president referred optimistically to the reconstruction of Iraq which he thought "could be organized into a federation."
In case the war endangered energy supplies, "the Saudis would help us and put all the oil necessary into the market," said Bush, who considered Europeans to be complacent about Saddam.
"Maybe it's because he's dark-skinned, far away and Muslim, lots of Europeans think everything's okay with him," he said.
"Saddam Hussein won't change and he'll keep on playing games. The time has come to get rid of him. That's the way it is," Bush said.
In March 2003, days before the war, the United Arab Emirates proposed to a summit of Arab leaders that Saddam and his top aides should step down and go into exile. It was the first time an Arab state had made an official call of this kind.
In a communique issued after the summit in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Arab leaders said they opposed any attack on Iraq and made no reference to the UAE's proposal.