D.C. Scene: Confusion and Closed Doors : Mood: First came Hussein's hard-line speech, but hours later came word that Iraq accepted the Soviet peace plan.


For the confident policy-makers of the Bush Administration, so proud of the smooth and steady unfolding of their war plan, Thursday was a day of confusion, consternation and closed doors.

President Bush sat in his study in the morning, his national security adviser at his side and his CIA director on the telephone relaying analyses and translations from intelligence specialists. Together, they puzzled through the text of Saddam Hussein's radio address, then retreated to silence.

In the evening, the Oval Office television brought pictures of a smiling spokesman for Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, announcing that Iraq and the Soviets had agreed on an eight-point peace plan. The plan, if accepted by the United States, would require major concessions by Bush. Again, silence reigned.

Secretary of State James A. Baker III arrived at the White House and, without answering questions, hurried off to consult with Bush.

The President, who had made only brief appearances in public Wednesday, was even less visible Thursday, slipping into public view only once--to sign a proclamation declaring National Parent Teacher Assn. Week.

On Capitol Hill, the dominant theme of the day was confusion about what Iraq was up to, and how the United States and its allies should react.

Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were testifying to the Senate Armed Services Committee about next year's Pentagon budget as Hussein's radio speech began. One by one, senators slipped out of the hearing room to a small waiting room in the back, where a television seems permanently tuned these days to CNN.

It was not much of a picture for this video age--just a plain, black Sony portable multi-band radio sitting in the center of the screen. The crackly, static-filled sound of a speech in Arabic was overlaid with a halting English translation.

But the throwback to an earlier age of slower communications seemed to fit the capital's hesitant and uncertain mood.

At first, officials both here and in Moscow seemed convinced that Hussein's speech signaled nothing but defiance.

The Iraqi statement was the equivalent of a "suicide note," a senior Pentagon official told reporters after listening to the broadcast.

The Iraqi president has "made his choice in favor of war," Sergei P. Tarasenko, head of the Soviet Foreign Ministry's planning department, told Moscow's Interfax news service. The speech, he said, was "a kamikaze message."

In the world beyond governments, oil traders and speculators who once hung on every word issued from Baghdad in fear that the slightest signal could move millions of dollars, treated the speech as something of an anti-climax.

"We had the radio on," said Peter Beutel, an oil trader and analyst with Pegasus Econometrics in Hoboken, N.J. "But it's getting to the point where the market is almost ignoring him.

"It's clear the ground war is coming," Beutel added.

But hours later, when Gorbachev spokesman Vitaly N. Ignatenko announced Iraq's agreement to a peace plan, nothing seemed clear.

Shortly after the Soviet announcement, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater hurriedly left his office as reporters began gathering around. Aides put out word that Fitzwater might release a written statement responding to the Soviet move, but that officials would not be available to comment.

As reporters shouted questions, Fitzwater rushed past.

"Nothing, nothing," was all he said.

An hour later, after Fitzwater briefed the media on the White House reaction to the proposal, there remained more questions than answers. For the press and for Capitol Hill.

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