The Bush Administration, facing increasing pressure for face-to-face talks with Iraq, welcomed a proposed European diplomatic initiative Wednesday and refused to rule out a trip to Baghdad by Secretary of State James A. Baker III despite Iraq’s refusal to satisfy U.S. conditions for a meeting.
White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater, in the first indication of flexibility on the U.S. deadline for a trip by Baker, said the matter is being considered. For weeks, the Administration has insisted that today is the latest possible date for Baker to meet with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
“We’ve given them a number of dates for a possible meeting; we proposed these talks, and Saddam has showed no interest at this point,” Fitzwater said.
Asked if talks are still possible, even though all the dates proposed by the United States have passed, Fitzwater said: “There has been no decision yet. That matter is under consideration.”
The White House later declined to discuss a report by NBC News that Administration officials are confident that a date can be worked out for a visit by Baker to Baghdad.
At the same time, the Administration said it would welcome a trip to Baghdad by Jacques Poos, foreign minister of Luxembourg and the president of the European Community’s Council of Foreign Ministers. The EC foreign ministers are scheduled to meet Friday to approve the plan for Poos to confer with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz, probably in Baghdad.
“We support any diplomatic efforts that might result in a peaceful solution to the (Persian) Gulf crisis and that carries the uniform message that Iraq must comply in full with U.N. Security Council resolutions,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
Undersecretary of State Robert M. Kimmitt, the department’s third-ranking official, discussed the gulf crisis Wednesday with the ambassadors of Luxembourg, Italy and the Netherlands, who met with Kimmitt as representatives of the European Community.
Under the community’s rotating presidency, Luxembourg holds the post for the first six months of this year. Italy held it for the last half of last year, and the Netherlands will be in the chair in the final six months of 1991.
Although Boucher provided few details, he said Washington has no reason to doubt that Poos will give Aziz the same message that the United States wants to convey--that Iraq must end its occupation of Kuwait or face military action by the United States and its allies.
“If they have more luck than we did, then more power to them,” Fitzwater said of the EC initiative.
But he said it is up to Hussein “to make any move for peace.”
Meanwhile, with a new session of Congress beginning today, momentum was building on Capitol Hill for a resolution demanding that Bush obtain congressional approval before going to war with Iraq.
However, a key aide to House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) said the Democratic leadership is not likely to decide on Congress’ next step in the crisis until it becomes clear whether Baker will travel to Baghdad.
“Everyone is waiting to see what comes of the diplomatic initiatives first,” the aide said. “Everyone wants to wait until we either have a Baker visit, know definitely that there will be no Baker visit or have a Baker visit that accomplishes nothing. We’re not going to have a debate and the leadership is not going to take a firm stand until one of those things happens.”
Other key lawmakers have called for face-to-face talks with Hussein even if the United States has to compromise on dates. It seems clear that Bush will have an easier time dealing with Congress on the issue if Baker visits Baghdad, even if he is unable to wring any concessions out of the Iraqi dictator.
Administration officials said the secretary of state probably will travel to the gulf region next week to confer with U.S. allies even if the deadlock continues over dates for a Baker visit to Baghdad.
“The question is, would it be helpful for (Baker) to go to the Middle East to meet with our coalition partners, and that is the issue that we’re now considering,” Fitzwater said. “The question of going to Baghdad is something that has not materialized because we’ve not had any response from Saddam Hussein about his interest.”
Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, Lt. Col. Greg Pepin, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command running Operation Desert Shield, said about 25,000 more American troops arrived in the region last week, increasing the U.S. presence to 325,000.
Of that, the Army’s commitment totals 195,000, the Marines’ 55,000, the Air Force’s 40,000 and the Navy’s 35,000, he said. Their arsenal includes 1,300 Air Force and Navy planes, 50 ships, 1,000 main battle tanks, 2,000 armored personnel carriers and 1,500 helicopters.
In addition, Pentagon officials said about 220,000 troops are in the gulf representing other nations in the international coalition opposing the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait.
Military sources in Saudi Arabia said Iraq has set up three layers of defensive lines along the Saudi border, with its least experienced troops in the front, and its best, the Republican Guards, in the rear reserve.
To win a ground war, allied forces would have to punch through or flank the forward elements and engage and defeat the guards, who fought effectively during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, these sources maintained.
In sheer numbers, the 28 allied forces facing Iraq are outnumbered and outgunned. Iraq, with a population of less than 19 million, has an estimated 1 million men under arms. For the first time in its history, it began calling up 17-year-olds last week.
Times staff writers Michael Ross in Washington and David Lamb in Saudi Arabia contributed to this story.