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Saudis want to ‘psych’ Saddam out

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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Increasingly desperate to avoid war, Saudi Arabia is engaged in a campaign to incite Iraqi security forces to overthrow Saddam Hussein if he continues to refuse to step down or go into exile, officials here say.

The Saudi leadership is advocating Saddam's removal as part of a war-avoidance strategy even as the kingdom signals Washington that it will cooperate extensively with a U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf, including offering the use of crucial bases and airspace, Saudi officials said last week.

It seemed possible that a number of Arab and Muslim states could join the effort this week as Turkey seeks to assemble Iraq's neighbors for urgent discussions in Ankara, Turkey's capital, with an explicit agenda of averting military conflict, though a number of Saudi officials said they considered averting a conflict to be a remote possibility.

Turkey's prime minister, Abdullah Gul, said on Friday that he had encouraged Saddam to consider stepping down and, separately, a senior Saudi intelligence officer is said to be engaged in discussions with Saddam's son Qusay, on a proposal to offer amnesty to the Iraqi leader along with an exile home for members of his extended family.

Iraqi officials have denied that such talks are under way.

New reports of a Saudi plan aimed at heading off a war by encouraging Saddam's removal have circulated in recent days. Saudi officials cautioned, however, that while they are formulating a general amnesty plan, there is no concrete proposal as yet.

"The Americans want to get Saddam out by military means, and we want to get him out by psychological intensification," an adviser to the Saudi royal family said.

Another adviser to the royal court said senior officials here were pressing the campaign mostly in unofficial statements that they know will be broadcast into Iraq and through private diplomatic and intelligence channels, "because no one wants this war" and because "no one wants to be quoted publicly as advocating the overthrow of another sovereign state."

The kingdom's day-to-day ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, is seeking to demonstrate, aides say, that he and other Arab and Muslim leaders are doing all they can to avert a military assault on Iraq without directly challenging the Bush administration's position that war is coming if Saddam fails to disgorge the weapons of mass destruction that Washington asserts he is still hiding.

In Damascus, Syria, Saddam's cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majeed, said last week that any notion that Saddam was negotiating to go into exile was an "absurdity." Majeed is one of the figures who would be likely to join Saddam if an exile offer materialized.