Saddam turned down last-minute Russian call to go
By Clara Ferreira-Marques, 11 Apr 2003
MOSCOW, April 11 (Reuters) - The veteran Kremlin envoy pleaded with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to step down only three days before the U.S. big guns opened up on Baghdad.
The Iraqi strongman heard Yevgeny Primakov out, patted him on the shoulder...and then walked out of the room without another word.
Saddam's defiant answer to Russia's last-minute top-secret mission to stave off the U.S.-led offensive against Iraq emerged late on Friday from Primakov, a former Russian prime minister and old friend of Iraq who had known Saddam for years.
Primakov, 73, said President Vladimir Putin sent him on the make-or-break mission on March 17 -- only three days before the the U.S.-led offensive opened up and sealed Saddam's fate.
Recalling on Russian television his dramatic, last encounter with Saddam in one of his palaces, Primakov said: "I told him this 'if you love your country and love your people...and if you want to save your people from these sacrifices, you must leave your post as president of Iraq'."
"I told him that I understood how difficult this proposal was for him and how it could change his life, but that he had to understand that he was doing this for Iraq, for his motherland," Primakov said.
He did not say if he suggested Saddam went into exile or whether he proposed a specific country for him to go to. The Kremlin has always denied Saddam was offered shelter in Russia.
Primakov, who once ran Russia's foreign intelligence service and also served as foreign minister, said Putin called him in the early hours of March 17.
"(Putin) said this work could not be postponed that the plane was already waiting. We left that morning," he said.
It was not Primakov's first such urgent mission to Iraq. As a Middle East expert and long-time friend of Saddam, he travelled to Baghdad twice in 1990 as part of frantic Soviet efforts to avert a U.S. offensive to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.
He was unsuccessful then as now.
In the current crisis, he also flew in to Baghdad in February, returning with Saddam's reply: "I was born in Iraq and I will die in Iraq."
Looking back on Friday on his March mission, he said the proposal he put to Saddam at first met stony silence.
"First he listened to me, without a word. Then he said that during the first Gulf War we also tried to talk him into something, but a land operation turned out to be unavoidable all the same," Primakov said. "He then patted me on the shoulder and walked out."
Primakov said Moscow had done all it could to avoid war.
"Russia and Vladimir Putin did everything until the very last moment to prevent this terrible war. Terrible, because it is still not clear what it could bring about."
Russia, which has long-standing ties to Iraq, has consistently opposed using force to topple Saddam.