President Bush today took “one extra step” toward direct U.S.-Iraqi talks, proposing a meeting next week between Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz. Iraq said it was studying the offer.
Bush’s offer came a dozen days before the Jan. 15 U.N. deadline for Iraq to pull out of Kuwait or face a possible attack. Bush had previously said a top-level, U.S.-Iraq meeting on the crisis should occur by today to give Iraq time to withdraw from Kuwait by the U.N. deadline.
“I have decided to take one extra step,” Bush told congressional leaders at a picture-taking session before a meeting with them today. But he refused to take questions from reporters, who were then ushered out of the room.
Baker, at the State Department, said that “we hope Iraq will respond positively” to the initiative. He said Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had to withdraw from Kuwait “or face devastating consequences.”
The offer was communicated in a meeting today between a Foreign Ministry official and U.S. Charge d’Affaires Joseph C. Wilson IV--Wilson’s first contact with Iraqi officials since Dec. 18. Wilson called the atmosphere of the meeting “very good” but said he had received no response to Bush’s proposal.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Bush proposed a meeting between Baker and Aziz in Switzerland any time from next Monday to Wednesday. But Fitzwater said the meeting would underscore the U.S. resolve to end the crisis with a complete Iraqi withdrawal.
“No negotiations, no compromise, no attempts at face saving and no rewards for aggression,” Fitzwater said.
He quoted Bush as saying, “I am ready to make one last attempt to go the extra mile for peace.”
Bush called British Prime Minister John Major and French President Francois Mitterrand this morning to inform them of the proposed Geneva talks, Fitzwater said. He said they were “positive and supportive.”
Fitzwater said the Administration requested a response by Saturday.
Iraqi officials said the proposal would be discussed later today or Friday.
“We have a new American proposal, but it is too early to comment. We are studying it,” an Iraqi Foreign Ministry official said in Baghdad.
In London, Major and Jordan’s King Hussein today welcomed the Bush offer. “This is a good step and a very important step and I hope it will bring a peaceful resolution to the crisis,” said the king, who has tried several times to help resolve the five-month-old gulf standoff.
Germany’s foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, said Bush’s move shows that “the United States is trying everything to achieve a peaceful solution.”
U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar called it “something positive” and expressed hope that world leaders would intensify diplomatic efforts ahead of the Jan. 15 U.N. deadline.
The Bush offer came amid several European, Arab and Asian peace initiatives.
Baker will be traveling abroad next week for a round of meetings with allies in the anti-Iraq coalition before the U.N. deadline.