KENNEBUNKPORT, MAINE, SEPT. 1 -- President Bush announced today that he and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev will meet next Sunday in Helsinki for a one-day summit to discuss the Persian Gulf crisis and other issues in a step that White House officials hoped would show superpower solidarity against Iraq.
The meeting was announced as United Nations Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar ended two days of talks in Amman, Jordan, with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz without any tangible progress toward a diplomatic solution to the military standoff in the Arabian desert.
But the biggest breakthrough of the day was the takeoff from Baghdad airport of three jetliners carrying more than 550 Western and Japanese women, children and ailing American men away from their month-long captivity in Kuwait and Iraq.
In Cairo, the Arab League held together a thin majority of its divided membership to again condemn Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, to demand war reparations for Kuwait from Baghdad and to try to impose discipline on member nations promoting their own peace plans.
Bush, nearing the end of his vacation in Maine, said he initiated the meeting with Gorbachev. While Bush sought to dampen speculation that he and Gorbachev would try to produce a diplomatic plan for ending the gulf crisis, he said it is important for the two superpowers to maintain cooperation in their response to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's aggression in the Middle East.
Asked what he hoped to accomplish during his brief meeting with Gorbachev, their first since the May 30-June 3 summit in Washington, Bush said, "Being sure we're together."
Topics at the Helsinki meeting, details of which were worked out this week by Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, will not be limited to the Middle East, Bush stressed. The two leaders are expected to discuss the ongoing talks to reduce conventional forces in Europe and recent developments on Cambodia and Afghanistan.
While Bush said there is no special Middle East agenda for the meeting, his aides made clear that the image of the two leaders standing together in condemnation of Saddam was a desirable outcome.
"I don't think that's the expressed purpose of them going, but if that's a product that comes out of it, that's fine with us," said White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater. "We're eager at every turn to show the solidity of world opposition against him."
In recent days, Soviet officials have expressed some reservations about the U.S. military presence in the gulf region. But Bush, praising the Soviets for their cooperation, said the meeting with Gorbachev was not "driven by any worry that we might be apart, rather that there is a wide array of questions that could use consultation at this time."
Bush spoke to reporters before the first planeloads of Westerners had left Baghdad. He accused Saddam of "a certain brutality, a certain tawdry performance" in holding the women and children after announcing they could go free. "It is so base and so outrageous that I think most people in the Arab world are very embarrassed by this, and I think that's certainly true of others around the world," the president said.
In Kuwait City, the small group of U.S. diplomats continued to hold out against Iraqi demands to shut down the embassy, which is operating on a backup electricity generator and relying on a backup water supply, administration officials said here.
National security adviser Brent Scowcroft said U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait W. Nathaniel Howell had reported that "things are difficult, but they're struggling along." Deputy White House press secretary Roman Popadiuk, calling morale there good, said the embassy still has several days' supply of water and power.
Bush said he saw no reason for optimism about a diplomatic breakthrough because of Saddam's continuing inflexibility.
Scowcroft said that a plan to send a special envoy to Jordan's King Hussein to discuss international aid to Jordan and to press for Jordan's full compliance with the U.N. embargo had been changed, but he would not elaborate. "There will not be, at least at the moment, a delegation to Jordan," he said.
Bush said he would not comment on a Washington Post report that he had decided to forgive Egypt's $7.1 billion military debt, which would require congressional approval. He said his "gut instinct" was to go ahead with debt forgiveness because Egypt has played a key role in the current crisis.
Bush announced the Helsinki summit at a brief news conference at his vacation home here, saying the meeting grew out of an agreement with Gorbachev in June to meet regularly in settings that were less formal than the full-blown summits of the past.
The close cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union, once Iraq's largest arms supplier, is a product of the relationship that has developed between the two countries in recent months.
Soviet willingness to halt arms shipments to Iraq and join in condemning Saddam is seen by administration officials as a key element in their strategy to isolate Saddam from the world community.
White House officials said Bush plans to leave next Saturday for Helsinki, spend the night there and meet Gorbachev on Sunday, returning late that day.
First word of the summit came from Moscow late Friday, and White House officials attempted to avoid commenting on it because the Soviets were not ready to make an official announcement.
That produced an embarrassing scene at a morning briefing here by Scowcroft, who announced that he had nothing to announce.
As Scowcroft was pelted with questions from reporters, Fitzwater, standing a few feet away, got a call from Baker, who was in Texas, saying the announcement would come at 1 p.m. Seconds later, Fitzwater got a second call, this one from Bush, who was out on his boat, with the same message.
"The president said, 'Where are you?' " Fitzwater said. "I said, 'On camera.' "
He quickly scribbled a note to Scowcroft, whose briefing was being televised live. After telling reporters he had said "all that I'm going to say about that," the retired Air Force general said that official word would come in less than two hours.
"You know, I knew I shouldn't have done this," he said.
The official announcement was made simultaneously in Moscow.
Fitzwater said Bush had proposed Helsinki because it is close to the Soviet Union, as an accommodation to Gorbachev.
Although White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu was in the Soviet Union much of this week and had met with Finish President Mauno Koivisto en route to Moscow, Scowcroft said Sununu played no role in setting up the Bush-Gorbachev summit. Fitzwater said U.S. officials called Sununu from here to tell him. Sununu was scheduled to return to the United States today.
Bush said he and Gorbachev agreed "that we'd have no agenda and that it would be free-flowing discussions," similar to those the two men held at Camp David last June.
The president said he would not press Gorbachev to help share the cost of the gulf confrontation, as he is doing to many other countries, saying the Soviets have many other responsibilities around the world.
He also said he did not foresee a Soviet role in mediating the gulf crisis, despite Moscow's longstanding ties to Baghdad. "I don't think the Soviets see themselves in a mediating role, and I don't intend to ask them to see themselves in a mediating role, nor do I expect him to ask the United States to be in a mediating role."
Although Soviet officials have raised questions about a long-term U.S. military presence in the gulf, administration officials said they have "no doubt" about Soviet cooperation on how to handle the crisis.
Gorbachev, in a news conference Friday, suggested that there should be an Arab solution. Scowcroft denied that represented any conflict with U.S. policy, adding that an Arab solution "is the same as the United Nations solution."
Despite Bush's many diplomatic telephone calls since Iraq invaded Kuwait, he has not talked directly to Gorbachev. Communication between the two countries has been carried out primarily by Baker and Shevardnadze, although the two leaders communicated with one another through a cable about the summit.
First Lady Barbara Bush and Raisa Gorbachev are expected to join their husbands in Helsinki. Staff writer Patrick E. Tyler contributed to this report from Washington.