The Persian Gulf peace proposal announced in Moscow this morning was greeted cautiously here, with both the White House and Congress reluctant to pronounce any breakthrough.
White House officials repeatedly insisted that vague signs of progress--or simply a continuation of the Soviet efforts to reach an agreement with Iraq--would have no impact on the movement toward a ground war.
"We're not going to be held hostage to anything like that," said one official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "You just kind of watch and proceed."
But the fact that Saddam Hussein continued to seek a diplomatic solution was seen as encouraging.
One Arab diplomat said that Hussein's sudden flexibility showed he "is weakening under the attack."
"Saddam Hussein is not a martyr. He will not fight to the end. He wants to save his skin. A man who is so careful about his personal security is not a martyr," he said.
Reporting the views of U.S. analysts, one official said Hussein was "obviously playing for time."
In the Senate, some felt the offer represented a breakthrough that should prompt a counteroffer from President Bush. But there was a strong feeling that the embargo against Iraq should continue after any withdrawal from Kuwait.
"It would be foolish to say that it doesn't have promise," said Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) "The only precondition that I think will cause heartburn is removal of the sanctions. The sanctions will have to continue in effect for some time to prevent a buildup of military supplies by Iraq."
Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) agreed, saying that if Hussein withdraws "and we can keep the sanctions in place, I think most people would feel that's what we're looking for."
"It's possible we're getting close if he agreed to withdraw with not so many strings attached," Lott said.
Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) expressed both hope and skepticism in brief remarks on the Senate floor.
"Let's be very cautious," Dole said. "Remember, Saddam may be playing a stalling game."
"Does he really intend withdrawal, or is he pulling some kind of trick?" added Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.).
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the proposal was "very significant because it mentioned unconditional withdrawal." But he said he would want to know whether Iraq would pay reparations to Kuwait and accept monitoring of its remaining weapons of mass destruction.
Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, said in a CBS television interview: "We ought not to reject it too quickly. We ought to take a very hard look at it.
"We don't want to get into the position that we don't want to consider a serious proposal," he added. "After all, it calls for an unconditional pullout from Kuwait, and that has always been our objective."
Asked if negotiations over the plan would slow down the U.S. military momentum, Hamilton replied: "That is precisely the risk. That is why we have to weigh it seriously. The other side of it is that we don't want to lose a genuine opportunity for peace.
"The problem is that a muddy, ambiguous political solution could undercut a military victory which is close. It is an exceedingly difficult dilemma. The time pressures on the President are great."
Sen. James J. Exon (D-Neb.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was more cautious.
"I don't suspect the President will go with that (plan)," Exon told reporters. "But it's in the President's hands now. And whatever decision he reaches, I think we should support."
Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) added, "It's positive--but I'm not at all convinced that it's the proposal we ought to take."
Some skepticism went even deeper.
George Carver, former deputy director of the CIA, said Gorbachev seemed to be trying to spare the Soviet military the humiliation of seeing U.S.-led coalition forces rout an army that Moscow had trained and equipped.
"This is a fairly artfully baited hook," said Carver, now a senior fellow of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "But if the President doesn't spurn it, he will hand a major victory to the Soviet Union, whose agenda is different from ours or the United Nations'."
"Saddam is facing a major defeat, and he is trying with Soviet help to wiggle off the hook," Carver said.
Marvin Feuerwerger and Martin Indyk, in an analysis issued by the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Bush will have to "choose between accepting terms that would bring an Iraqi withdrawal which could well leave Saddam in power with much of his military capability intact, and rejecting the Soviet terms with all the potential that could have for splitting the superpowers and generating Soviet-American tensions not seen since the end of the Cold War."
Hussein's speech to the Iraqi people earlier in the day, Fitzwater said, "leaves little room for optimism about the Aziz visit."
In the speech on Baghdad Radio, Hussein appealed to the coalition lined up against him to accept his withdrawal offer, made last Friday and immediately rejected as a "cruel hoax" by Bush. But he stressed that he remains ready to fight a ferocious land battle.
The speech, said Fitzwater, was "disappointing" and a repetition of "the same invective" Hussein has used since invading Kuwait Aug. 2.
For his part, Bush kept a low profile, making no public remarks about the Gulf--and Fitzwater was deliberately vague about the procedures the Administration will follow in initiating the land battle, if such a decision is made.
"The President will make the final judgment," Fitzwater said. "He will decide when this will begin."
Even as it anxiously awaited Aziz's visit to Moscow and his midnight meeting with Gorbachev, the White House portrayed the flurry of contacts between Iraq and the Soviet Union as little more than a sideshow. It gave no suggestion that the apparently last-minute diplomatic efforts were having any impact on the coalition's war plans.
"This is between the two of them, so the coalition forces would have to consider any withdrawal offer by Iraq as a separate matter," Fitzwater said. The Soviets, he said, "are not representing us in any direct sense."
Before Aziz reached Moscow late Thursday night, a Soviet diplomat in Washington confirmed that the Bush Administration had already raised problems about the lack of any specific demand, in the original Soviet peace proposal, for reparations. The U.N. resolutions call for Iraq to make such payments to help restore damage done to Kuwait.
Earlier in the day, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, scoffed at ground-war scenarios--emerging from "think tanks and part-time real estate experts who are now defense experts"--that predict high numbers of allied casualties.
But he made the sober observation that "ground combat is a tough business, a nasty business. It is not nice, sanitized or a video game. We will select our tactics in a way that will minimize casualties, just like we have in the air campaign. But it is important to understand there will be casualties. . . .
"The air campaign," he continued, "began 17 January and will not end until the last day of the conflict. If anything we expect air power will be even more decisive in the days ahead."
Similarly, Cheney said that any ground operation would be combined with air attacks in a strategy aimed at keeping allied casualties as low as possible.
They provided few other details.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) questioned the necessity of moving to ground action as long as the bombing campaign continued to wreak heavy damage while causing few allied casualties.
"If you've got a winning hand, why is there a temptation to fold it?" Kennedy asked.
Times staff writers Paul Houston, Norman Kempster, David Lauter and Doyle McManus contributed to this story.