Iraqi President Saddam Hussein demanded Tuesday that the U.S. government talk peace or risk a "grave disaster" of global proportions, but the White House issued an immediate rebuff, saying there is "very little to talk about" until Hussein's troops leave Kuwait.
The hostile exchange delivered another blow to hopes of a diplomatic or negotiated solution to avert a direct military conflict between the two nations, which continued their massive deployment of arms and personnel to the region.
In a clear sign that the Bush Administration intends to escalate the U.S. military buildup, Pentagon officials said the President will sign an order today authorizing the mobilization of about 40,000 reserve units to active-duty assignments.
The initial reserve call-up is expected to concentrate on cargo handlers and other speciality personnel needed to help with the continuing air- and sea-lifts of troops and equipment. Most will be assigned to posts in the United States, officials said.
Striving to counter Washington's effort to cement international support for its hard-line position, Iraq appeared to sound a conciliatory note in a televised "open letter" from Hussein to his nation and in a lengthy news conference by Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz.
"He (Bush) should look for peaceful solutions," Hussein declared in the broadcast statement. At the same time, Aziz, who was consulting in Amman with King Hussein of Jordan, declared: "We are ready to put all the cards on the table."
The White House, however, said there was no sign of concession on two key demands--Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait and safe passage for Americans in the two countries. The world "is united" behind these requirements, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said.
The exchange came amid reports that Iraq has moved ballistic missiles into Kuwait, putting the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh and other key targets within firing range of weapons capable of carrying chemical warheads.
In another ominous development, the State Department said there were "credible reports" that Iraq has forced some Westerners to industrial installations and that an American was seized at gunpoint at his home in Kuwait and detained in a hotel.
The White House again protested Iraq's stated intention to use Western hostages as human shields against possible military attack and expressed relief that 18 dependents of U.S. diplomats were able to get out Monday.
Fitzwater said 54 Americans remain missing--13 in Kuwait and 41 in Iraq. "We obviously are trying to get as much information as we can on their whereabouts," he said. "It does appear that citizens of all nations are being moved about in Iraq to unknown destinations."
Hussein, in a televised message read by a studio announcer and broadcast throughout his nation, demanded that Bush take up Baghdad's proposals to resolve the escalating crisis caused by Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait.
The Iraqi initiative, outlined Sunday, calls for withdrawal of American and allied forces from Saudi Arabia and an end to the sea blockade, with the fate of Kuwait to be determined by Arab countries.
The alternative, he said, would be a devastating military confrontation between the United States and Iraq. "If Bush were to attack, a grave disaster would take place, not only regarding the region but the whole world," Hussein said.
Hussein remained adamant that he would continue to hold Western civilians trapped in Iraq and Kuwait as a shield against possible military attack. Iraqi soldiers began moving American and British civilians in the two countries last week.
"This is not a way of revenge, but to deter President Bush taking action against the Iraqi people," Hussein said, comparing the detention to U.S. internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
"What happened to the Americans so far is the lightest possible treatment that is dictated by necessity," Hussein said.
As the Iraqi president's message was aired, his foreign minister was in Amman meeting with King Hussein, who last week agreed to back U.N.-mandated economic sanctions, closing off Iraq's last land supply line.
At his news conference there, Aziz insisted that Saddam Hussein's grand plan be implemented, that Kuwait be discussed in tandem with negotiations for an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank and Gaza, and that Syrian forces leave Lebanon.
"We are ready to discuss the situation in the gulf and other situations. . . . If they are ready to talk, we are ready to talk," Aziz said.
The Iraqi foreign minister turned aside charges that Americans and other Westerners held against their will in Iraq and Kuwait are hostages, as acknowledged by Bush for the first time in a speech to a veterans group Monday.
"This situation cannot be defined as hostage taking. . . . We did not take these people as hostages; we have hosted them with our families, and we are telling their government to make peace and (its) nationals will enjoy peace and enjoy freedom," Aziz said.
"If the Americans attack the sites where those people are living now, they and our people who are living with them will be hurt," he added. "That will be the result."
In Kennebunkport, Me., where Bush is continuing his summer vacation while presiding over the Middle East crisis, spokesman Fitzwater dismissed the Iraqi statements as "much of the same rhetoric that we've heard before in a kind of daily listening from Iraq."
The United Nations, Fitzwater said, "has been very clear in branding Iraq as the aggressor. They have been very clear in demanding a complete and unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait."
He said that all the nations taking part in the multinational approach "are willing to talk with Iraq, but only within the context of compliance with the U.N. resolutions" calling for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.
The President kept a low profile Tuesday, making no public comments. He took part in a Republican Party fund-raising event at the Woodlands Country Club in Falmouth, Me., and attended the funeral near his home of an uncle who died Thursday.
Fitzwater said Bush spoke by telephone Tuesday morning with Thomas Pickering, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and with the President's national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft.
The White House spokesman said that the U.S. charge d'affaires in Baghdad, Joseph Wilson, had met with Iraqi officials at the Foreign Ministry there to demand access to the Americans held hostage.
"Of course we've got no positive response on that point," Fitzwater said. "So, at this point, we see very little to talk about when all we get are negative responses."
Williams reported from Manama and Gerstenzang from Kennebunkport, Me. Staff writer Daniel Williams, in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.
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