SIR Richard Branson tried to stop the war in Iraq by hatching a secret plan with Nelson Mandela, it emerged today.
The Virgin chief reportedly wanted to send Mr Mandela to meet with tyrant Saddam Hussein to persuade him to go into exile.
The aim was for the former South African leader to fly out of Baghdad with Saddam in tow.
Multi-millionaire tycoon Sir Richard even got approval for the plan from United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan, despite fears the Nobel Peace Prize winner might be kidnapped. Sir Richard, who was prepared to go to Iraq with Mr Mandela, believed the war could be prevented if Saddam was given an escape route - but coalition forces invaded Iraq before his plan was able to proceed.
Sir Richard said: "I kept thinking, you have to give somebody like Saddam a way out otherwise he’s like a cornered animal - they have to fight. I thought the only person who could persuade him to step down was Mandela.
"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 Johannesburg from March 17.
"Two days later, as we were planning to fly in, the bombing started, so it didn’t come to anything."
The invasion of Iraq has inspired Sir Richard 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."
Four American civilians working for a security firm were today wounded by a car bomb attack in northern Iraq.
The victims were wounded this morning near Beiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad.
Two of the security employees suffered minor injuries while the other two were taken to a military medical facility, officials said.
The latest attack came a day after gunmen attacked a car in Mosul, northern Iraq, killing three foreigners and their Iraqi driver then beheading one victim.