Less than a month before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein signaled he was willing to go into exile as long as he could take with...

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WASHINGTON — Less than a month before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein signaled he was willing to go into exile as long as he could take with him $1 billion and information on weapons of mass destruction, according to a report of a Feb. 22, 2003, meeting between President Bush and his Spanish counterpart published by a Spanish newspaper Wednesday.

The meeting at Bush’s Texas ranch was a planning session for a final diplomatic push at the United Nations for a tough new Security Council resolution to pressure Saddam.

Spain’s prime minister at the time, José María Aznar, expressed hope that war might be avoided — or at least supported by a U.N. majority — and Bush said that outcome would be “the best solution for us” and “would also save us $50 billion,” referring to the initial U.S. estimate of what the Iraq war would cost. But Bush made it clear in the meeting that he expected to “be in Baghdad at the end of March.”

“It’s like Chinese water torture,” he said of the U.N. negotiations. “We’ve got to put an end to it.”

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White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe declined to comment on the report in El Pais, which also posted what it said was a leaked transcript of the meeting on its Web site.

Aznar, a close ally on Iraq, asked that Bush show “a little more patience” in the march toward war.

Bush expressed anger and irritation at those governments that disagreed with him. He directed particular scorn toward then-French President Jacques Chirac, one of the most public foes of the invasion, saying Chirac “sees himself as Mr. Arab.”

Although Bush’s public position at the time of the meeting was that the door remained open for a diplomatic solution, hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops already had been deployed to Iraq’s border.

“Time is short,” Bush said in a news conference with Aznar the same day.

El Pais, a Spanish newspaper critical of the war, said the transcript was prepared by Spain’s ambassador to the United States, Javier Ruperez, who was at the meeting in Texas. It was translated from Spanish by The Washington Post.

Bush said that Europeans were insensitive to “the suffering that Saddam Hussein has inflicted on the Iraqis” and added: “Maybe it’s because he’s dark-skinned, far away and Muslim — a lot of Europeans think he’s OK.” But he was happy to play the “bad cop,” he said. “The more the Europeans attack me, the stronger I am in the United States.”

Aznar stressed the importance of U.N. authorization, saying “it was not the same” to act without it. Bush agreed to continue trying to sway Security Council members, saying “countries like Mexico, Chile, Angola and Cameroon ought to know that the security of the United States is at stake. (Then-Chilean President Ricardo) Lagos ought to know that the Free Trade Agreement with Chile is waiting for Senate confirmation and that a negative attitude on this could endanger ratification.”

Aznar and the other leading Bush ally on Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, were under intense anti-war pressure at home. “Help us with our public opinion,” Aznar said.

He asked Bush to expand on reports that Saddam might be persuaded to go into exile.

“The Egyptians are talking to Saddam Hussein,” Bush said. “He seems to have indicated he would be open to exile if they would let him take $1 billion and all the information he wants on weapons of mass destruction.”

Later in the conversation, Aznar asked: “Is it true there’s a possibility Saddam Hussein might go into exile?”

“Yes, it’s possible,” Bush responded.

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