- Sir Richard Branson tried to prevent the Iraq war in
a secret deal with Nelson Mandela.
- The Virgin boss hoped to send the former leader of South
Africa to meet Saddam Hussein and persuade him to go into exile.
- He even got United Nations chief Kofi Annan's approval
for the plan, despite fears that Saddam might kidnap Mandela.
- A private jet was ready to fly the Nobel Peace Prize
winner to Iraq. Branson offered to join him on the peace mission. But coalition
forces invaded Iraq just before they went.
- Branson opposed invasion plans and believed if they could
offer Saddam an escape route, bloodshed would be avoided.
- He said: "I kept thinking you have to give somebody
like Saddam a way out otherwise he's like a cornered animal - they have
- "I thought the only person who could persuade him
to step down was Mandela."
- The plan was for Mandela and Saddam to fly out of Baghdad
- Branson said: "Mandela wanted us to get Kofi Annan's
blessing, which we got. We were arranging for Mandela to go to Iraq to
meet Saddam and had a plane standing by in Jo'burg from March 17.
- "Two days later, as we were planning to fly in,
the bombing started, so it didn't come to anything."
- Branson is close friends with Mandela and spent weeks
trying to set up the meeting with Saddam.
- Four Virgin executives were given secret instructions
to help make the peace plan a success.
- Virgin director Will Whitehorn said: "Richard put
a tremendous amount of work into it because he believed it was the right
thing to do.
- "Kofi Annan was initially cautious about the idea
and was worried Mandela would be taken hostage by Saddam.
- "He eventually changed his mind and gave us the
go-ahead. Nelson was prepared to give it a go, he thought at his age, he
- "Richard told Nelson he would go along with him
if it was felt appropriate. He wasn't worried about his own safety, it
wouldn't have been the most dangerous thing he's done. But the decision
was being left up to Nelson.
- "The plan was to try to persuade Saddam to stand
down as president of the country, given the inevitability of the invasion.
- "Richard was convinced Saddam was like a rabbit
trapped in the headlights. But Richard thought Saddam didn't himself believe
the Allies would invade.
- "Richard met Saddam briefly in 1990 when he flew
out to Baghdad with Sir Edward Heath to bring home 43 injured and sick
hostages before the first conflict.
- "He was convinced Bush would go to war in Iraq but
he was always sceptical about the weapons of mass destruction. He was saddened
when the plan was overtaken by events"
- Branson said of the war: "It was perhaps the worst
foreign policy decision since Suez. You shouldn't have to maim or kill
200,000 people to get rid of one individual."
- The invasion has inspired him to set up a group of non-political
figures called the Elders to help avert future conflicts.
- He added: "It's in its infancy but Mandela has agreed
to be the founding father."
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