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Saddam trusts me and knows I tell the truth, says Heath

SIR EDWARD Heath has one explanation for his success persuading President Saddam Hussein to release three Britons from Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. 'He trusts me. He knows I tell him the truth,' Sir Edward said yesterday.

'He realises I told him the truth about the war three years ago, that the Americans and British would go to war against him if he didn't get out of Kuwait. He's always trusted me since. He made it known that if I wanted to go to and discuss the prisoners, I was welcome at any time.

'I must make it absolutely clear that I made no 'appeal' to Saddam. We had two and a half hours together and he said 'I know what you want, and I will make arrangements accordingly'. '

However, after his return yesterday Sir Edward said that Britain and the West should act without delay to provide Iraq with urgently-needed medical supplies.

Sir Edward and Saddam have something else in common from the past: a shared dislike of Margaret Thatcher. 'We don't discuss that,' Sir Edward insisted. But other veteran negotiators with Baghdad say it is powerful enough: 'Absolutely, that has an enormous importance,' said one envoy experienced in dealing with the Iraqis. 'The dislike of Thatcher and by extension, of Bush.'

Saddam has not forgotten that in 1990 it was Margaraet Thatcher who egged on the then US President to go to war with the words, 'George, this is no time to go wobbly.'

The Iraqi president accepted that he would have to deal with a former British prime minister where he had originally demanded royalty.

The story of the release of Saddam's Western hostages goes back to September, with the pardoning of three Swedish engineers who like Paul Ride, Michael Wainwright and Simon Dunn had been given long sentences for 'illegal entry'.

For months, Saddam had been told by every Western envoy who dealt with him that his effort to rehabilitate himself internationally and get UN sanctions eased was seriously damaged by his continued holding ordinary citizens. But for some time, Saddam ignored appeals from the Swedish Prime Minister to let the Swedes go.

It was only when an emissary of King Carl Gustav arrived in Baghdad with a personal appeal from the Swedish monarch that progress was finally made.

'Saddam is hopelessly impressed by royalty,' said one Western envoy. 'He is an outcast in this world. He feels the sovereignty of Iraq and the dignity of the Iraqi people is being destroyed by the sanctions. And here he had the chance to get the King of Sweden pleading with him.'

The problem then was that Saddam set his sights on an appeal from Queen Elizabeth or one of her family, as the price for letting the Britons go. This became apparent when Sir David Hannay, Britain's ambassador to the UN, met Tariq Aziz, Iraq's deputy prime minister.

When he returned to London, Sir David made it clear to the Queen that he 'was available should she wish to see him'. Palace sources say the meeting did not take place, but Sir David was 'doing the professional thing as a diplomat' in offering to brief the Queen.

The Royal Family does not do such things as intervening on behalf of prisoners abroad. The relatives, reminded of Sir Edward's success in delivering the British hostages from Iraq in 1990, had therefore approached him to act on their behalf.

He began communicating by telephone with the Iraqis. The process was slowed when the Prince of Wales gave a speech in October attacking Saddam's treatment of the Marsh Arabs in southern Iraq. Yet that, if nothing else, made it clear to Saddam he could hope for no royal appeal.

A Frenchman and a German remain in Abu Ghraib jail, two of some 30 nationalities still held by Saddam.

If Saddam sticks to his word, it would be remarkable work indeed by Sir Edward. In the case of the Frenchman, the Iraqi dictator had previously made it known to Paris that he would settle for nothing less than a letter from President Mitterrand.

(Photograph omitted)