KENNEBUNKPORT, MAINE, AUG. 21 -- The Bush administration today bluntly rejected Iraq's newest offer to negotiate a settlement to the Persian Gulf crisis and said that the United States will have no interest in negotiations until Iraqi troops get out of Kuwait.
Citing U.N. demands for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait and the continuing deadlock over the fate of U.S. hostages, White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater told reporters, "At this point we see very little to talk about when all we get are negative responses."
In Washington, State Department officials said they saw nothing promising in the public statements made today by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and by Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz. In comments in Amman, Jordan, the foreign minister called on the United States to begin negotiations with Iraq over all aspects of the crisis. But U.S. officials said that they saw nothing to talk about as long as foreign citizens are being rounded up in Kuwait and Iraq and as long as Iraq occupies Kuwait.
Following today's statements from the Iraqis, "Nobody jumped up and said 'Oh my God, let's have a meeting,' " said a State Department official. "Obviously they are feeling the pinch, and obviously they are paying attention" to the international oil and trade embargo, the official added.
Saddam had earlier offered several other initiatives, saying Iraq would pull out of Kuwait if Israel leaves the occupied West Bank, and then saying Iraq would release foreigners if the international military forces were withdrawn from the gulf. The United States rejected both proposals. Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze said in Moscow Monday that there were "elements deserving attention" in the latter proposal. But a Soviet spokesman said today that Shevardnadze's comment was designed to encourage dialogue and was not an endorsement of Saddam's position. U.S. officials have noted the close contact between Shevardnadze and Secretary of State James A. Baker III throughout the crisis.
The State Department official said that U.S. officials are willing to talk with Iraq but "they have to do something" to meet U.S. concerns about the American hostages, and the Kuwait occupation, before any kind of negotiations can even be contemplated.
Fitzwater dismissed the newest statements from Saddam and Aziz as part of a "daily litany" from the Iraqis. The White House spokesman made it clear that the U.S. position on negotiations has not softened. "The world is united in demanding that Iraq withdraw from Kuwait," Fitzwater said. "And that has not changed one iota by these comments this morning."
Another administration official said the United States saw "absolutely nothing new" in Saddam's statement, which was read over Iraqi television by a spokesman. The official described Aziz's comments as "a generic statement of things they've said in the past," adding: "No one here has read it as a step forward or backward."
Fitzwater said the United States and other nations would continue to try to talk to the Iraqi government about the status and whereabouts of Americans and other foreign nationals held hostage. "But that's not the same as negotiations over the U.N. demand to get out," he added.
Fitzwater spoke with reporters at the Woodlands Country Club in Falmouth, Maine, where President Bush was participating in a fund-raising golf event for the reelection campaign of Maine Gov. John R. McKernan Jr. (R). The president had no direct comment on events in the gulf, refusing to answer reporters' questions on the golf course.
Bush plans to meet at his oceanfront home here Wednesday with Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and administration officials said he will announce then the call-up of reserve forces to supplement U.S. troops already deployed in Saudi Arabia and the gulf region.
Cheney also will report to Bush on his just-completed trip to the Middle East, where he has negotiated new access for U.S. forces to bases there and discussed the sale of additional military equipment to Saudi Arabia and others.
Administration officials said the Pentagon continued today to work out the final details of the order calling up the reservists. White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu described it as a "very surgical, specialized call-up, rather than a broad call-up" of the reserves.
Sununu also defended the president against criticism that he should not be vacationing during the crisis.
"Everybody knows he keeps in touch with what's happening," Sununu said. "I'd rather have a president who kept the whole thing in perspective than one who locked himself behind closed doors and brooded about the problem."
Asked whether the president's recreational activities created a public relations problem, he replied tartly, "This is not a public relations administration. This is a do administration, and the president does it well."
Although some officials say a diplomatic solution under U.N. auspices remains possible, the president's escalating personal attacks on Saddam as the personification of "fundamental evil" appear to make it increasingly difficult for the administration to seek or accept any resolution that does not meet its terms, beginning with an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.
"That is the position of the United Nations. That is the position of all nations," Fitzwater said.
Even if the Iraqis did withdraw, administration officials doubt that Saddam could ever be trusted in negotiations. Rather than negotiate, U.S. officials have said that American policy is to contain Saddam and block his drive to become a regional superpower, eventually hoping to remove him from power.
Meanwhile today, U.S. officials continued intensive consultations with allied countries in an effort to secure support for a U.N. resolution backing military action to enforce the economic sanctions voted two weeks ago. Administration officials continue to express confidence that they have the authority to use military force to enforce the sanctions, but they prefer to have some kind of U.N. stamp of approval on their actions.
Fitzwater said the United States wants to give the United Nations ample opportunity to act on a new resolution, but added "not so much time that allows any gaps to appear in the enforcement of those sanctions."
Fitzwater said U.S. ships continue to shadow a number of tankers in the gulf region, but that one of the ships fired on by the U.S. Navy over the weekend was allowed to reach port in Yemen. Fitzwater said the United States had decided not to halt the ship because Yemen said late Monday that it would not allow the tanker to offload its cargo of oil.
But he added that U.S. forces in the gulf would monitor the tanker while in port to make certain that Yemeni officials comply with the sanctions and added that U.S. and other naval forces would continue to pursue other ships in the gulf. An official in Washington said that Yemen's position made it less likely that the United States would have to use force to preserve the trade embargo.
After participating in the golf tournament today, Bush attended the funeral of his uncle, Dr. John Walker, who died here last week at the age of 81.
Balz reported from Kennebunkport and Hoffman from Washington.