Rejecting four earlier dates suggested by the United States, Iraq proposed Saturday that Secretary of State James A. Baker III visit Baghdad just three days before the Jan. 15 deadline for withdrawing its forces from Kuwait.
The Bush Administration angrily accused Iraq of stalling. One senior official suggested that Baker might refuse to make the trip for talks with President Saddam Hussein unless Hussein agrees to an earlier meeting.
U.S. officials are concerned that by putting off Baker’s visit until Jan. 12, Hussein hopes to prevent the U.S.-led multinational force from launching a military offensive until long after the deadline set by the U.N. Security Council.
The Iraqi News Agency reported that Baghdad had turned down U.S. suggestions that Baker visit Iraq on Dec. 20, Dec. 21, Dec. 22 or Jan. 3. Iraq has suggested Dec. 17 as the date for Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz to meet with President Bush in Washington.
Brent Scowcroft, the President’s national security adviser, said Hussein’s choice of dates is “another ploy that he is trying to use to drag things out and to avoid seriously facing up to what the world community is demanding that he do.”
Interviewed by CNN, Scowcroft indicated that the Administration still assumes that the face-to-face contacts, proposed by Bush on Nov. 30, eventually will take place. But another senior official hinted that the United States might reject the mid-January meeting.
“I don’t think they are very serious,” the official said. “As long as they are not serious, we are not very interested in engaging. I don’t think we are going to lend ourselves to anything that allows them to string this out.”
The official said, however, that no scheduling decisions had yet been made. He said the next step would be to try to persuade Iraq to accept an earlier date.
The dispute over the timing of the visits shows that the United States and Iraq remain far apart in their approaches to a possible diplomatic solution to the Persian Gulf crisis. Assuming the talks take place, U.S. officials say Baker will refuse to discuss issues other than Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait, while Iraq says it will talk about the wider aspects of Middle East conflict, including Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
U.S. officials have long believed that Iraq’s strategy is to play for time, delaying the possible start of hostilities for as long as possible. These officials speculate that Hussein believes that the international coalition against him will fall apart eventually and that the U.S. military force in the Persian Gulf will lose effectiveness if it is not used. Moreover, the officials say that Hussein apparently thinks that if he holds on to Kuwait long enough, the world will get over its anger at his invasion and accept Iraq’s claim that Kuwait is its 19th province.
Nevertheless, it seems likely that Bush ultimately will have to swallow his anger and agree to Iraq’s choice of dates. When he suggested the meetings, Bush said Baker could visit Baghdad any time between Dec. 15 and Jan. 15. It would be awkward for the President at this point to reject a date that falls within that time period.
There seems to be no real controversy over Iraq’s proposal that Aziz visit Washington on Dec. 17. However, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said Friday that Washington will not officially set a date for Aziz’s trip until agreement is reached on a date for Baker’s return visit.
In reporting the proposed date for Baker’s meeting with Hussein, the Iraqi News Agency said the Iraqi delegation would insist on “Iraq’s national rights, including its rights in Kuwait province.”
“Iraq will stress its position that the talks in Washington and Baghdad should be based on the real desire for dialogue and serious, thorough and comprehensive exchange of ideas between the two sides in which each side will lay down its views,” the Iraqi report said. “The aim should be to seek understanding as an alternative to the language of threats and warnings.”
But Scowcroft made it clear that the United States sees the talks very differently.
“As far as we are concerned, the subjects for the discussion are the United Nations resolutions and Iraq’s compliance with those resolutions and our determination to ensure that compliance,” he said.
Asked if the meeting could be considered a dialogue, Scowcroft said the United States expects “a dialogue focused on him (Hussein) getting out of Kuwait and complying with the U.N. resolutions.”
“A dialogue with any extraneous issues . . . yes, we would reject,” he said.
Bush proposed the exchange of meetings to demonstrate that the United States is prepared to “go the extra mile” in search of a peaceful resolution to the crisis. U.S. officials admitted privately that the gesture was intended to respond to criticism in Congress and elsewhere that the Administration was rushing into a war that potentially could be avoided.
However, Arab governments allied with the United States are concerned that the exchange of meetings will enhance Hussein’s stature, no matter what the outcome. Even if he ultimately backs down, according to this line of reasoning, he will have shown that he can tweak Uncle Sam’s beard.