Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations yesterday signaled his country's willingness to accommodate U.S. demands for a meeting between Secretary of State James A. Baker III and President Saddam Hussein earlier than the Jan. 12 date Iraq had insisted on.
The United States has argued that Jan. 12 is too close to the Jan. 15 deadline by which the United Nations said Iraq must withdraw from Kuwait or face possible military action.
Baker, meanwhile, foreshadowed a long-term U.S. military role in the Persian Gulf -- even after Iraq withdraws from Kuwait -- citing the continuing need for multinational forces to "contain" Saddam and "create a new world order . . . based on international law and not international outlaws."
Iraqi Ambassador Abdul Amir Anbari, appearing on NBC News's "Meet the Press," said he "wouldn't exclude" a U.S. proposal to hold the meeting between Baker and Saddam Hussein as early as Jan. 3, which Baker has said is the latest acceptable date for such a meeting.
A senior Bush administration official said that if Iraq gives way on the timing of Baker's mission, the White House would be ready to host a two-day visit by Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz Dec. 17. That meeting would be the first leg of high-level talks initiated by President Bush 10 days ago in an effort, he said, to "go the extra mile for peace."
The official said Baker then would be sent to Baghdad between Jan. 3 and Jan. 12.
Baker, in a separate interview on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley," insisted that anytime later than Jan. 3 is "unacceptable." In that interview, in which he apparently was unaware of Anbari's remarks, Baker said Saddam was "playing games" and trying to delay the U.N. deadline by proposing a meeting three days before he is supposed to withdraw 500,000 troops from Kuwait.
"We will not be a party to circumventing the Jan. 15 deadline in the United Nations resolution," Baker said.
Baker, for the first time projecting future U.S. military presence after an Iraqi pullout from Kuwait, said the multinational force would still be needed to "guard against" Saddam's "disproportionate military power" and the "possible use of his weapons of mass destruction."
"We have a substantial ability to maintain security by virtue of our multinational presence in the area," said Baker, referring to the U.S.-led international force of more than 550,000 assembling in the region.
Asked whether the United States could hold together the multinational coalition if Saddam complied with the U.N. resolution, Baker replied, "Sufficiently to contain him."
Baker emphasized that the United States would not interfere in efforts by Saddam to resolve his "differences" with Kuwait once he pulls back his occupying forces. But he noted that far from being bullied by its stronger neighbor, Kuwait would "have on its side during the course of any discussions that might follow the entire multinational consensus that has supported it so far."
National security adviser Brent Scowcroft added that even with an Iraqi withdrawal, "terrible problems" for the United States would remain because of Saddam's possession of chemical weapons and efforts to develop a nuclear capability.
Scowcroft, also appearing on "Meet the Press," called for "strict international supervision" of the Iraqi arsenal to prevent Saddam from developing an even more dangerous military capability.
Scowcroft and Baker said the administration rejects any suggestion of "linkage" between efforts to solve the gulf crisis and a pending U.N. Security Council resolution calling for an international peace conference to settle Israeli-Palestinian problems.
Saddam has repeatedly tried to link resolution of the gulf conflict to the Palestinian issue.
Baker said that while such a conference, "properly structured, at an appropriate time, might be useful," Washington opposes it now because it would "establish linkage."
Scowcroft added that the "major problem" with the resolution is "direct or implied linkage between the gulf and other disputes in the region. And that, we have declared, is not acceptable."
He said a U.S. veto would be made easier because some Arab allies do not want Saddam to take credit for the resolution.
Staff writer David S. Broder contributed to this report.