updated 10/29/2005 8:38:33 PM ET 2005-10-30T00:38:33

Saddam Hussein accepted an 11th-hour offer to flee into exile weeks ahead of the U.S.-led 2003 invasion, but Arab League officials scuttled the proposal, officials in this Gulf state claimed.

The exile initiative was spearheaded by the late president of the United Arab Emirates, Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, at an emergency Arab summit held in Egypt in February 2003, Sheik Zayed’s son said in an interview aired by Al-Arabiya TV during a documentary. The U.S.-led coalition invaded on March 19 that year.

A top government official confirmed the offer on Saturday, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Saddam allegedly accepted the offer to try to halt the invasion and bring elections to Iraq within six months, according to the official and Sheik Zayed’s son.

“We had the final acceptance of the various parties ... the main players in the world and the concerned person, Saddam Hussein,” the son, Sheik Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, said during the program aired Thursday to mark the first anniversary of his father’s death.

Saddam promised immunity
Sheik Zayed’s initiative would have given Saddam and his family exile and guarantees against prosecution in return for letting Arab League and U.N. experts run Iraq until elections could be held in six months, the official said.

“We were coming (to the summit in Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh resort) to place the facts on the table,” said Sheik Mohammed, who is deputy chief of the Emirates armed forces and crown prince of Abu Dhabi.

“The results would have emerged if the initiative was presented and discussed. This is now history.”

The anonymous Emirates official said Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa did not bring the proposal to the summit’s discussion because Arab foreign ministers had not presented and accepted it as league protocol dictated.

At the time, Arab League leaders said the summit decided not to take up the idea, citing league rules barring interference in members’ domestic affairs.

Unknown whether Saddam accepted deal
It was not immediately possible to verify the Emirates claims that their offer had been accepted by Saddam, who is being held in U.S. military custody in Iraq and his facing trial on charges of crimes against humanity.

Officials from the Egypt-based 22-member Arab League declined to comment.

But at the 2003 summit, the Iraqi delegation rejected the Emirates proposal, while Iraq’s former U.N. ambassador, Mohammed Al-Douri, said Saddam was not going anywhere.

The Al-Arabiya documentary claimed Iraqi officials had dismissed the idea because they did not know Saddam had accepted it.

Saddam himself remained defiant ahead of the U.S.-led onslaught and hid in Iraq until being captured in December 2003.

The documentary also included an interview from Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, who said the United States was aware of the proposal.

One country that came up in the exile discussions was Belarus, but the Emirates official said some governments balked at offering sanctuary to Saddam’s notorious sons, Odai and Qusai. Both sons were killed during the war.

Almost all the Arab League’s member states are Sunni Muslim-majority nations and the pan-Arab body has kept Iraq at arm’s length since the U.S.-led invasion, which most of its members opposed.

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