HOUSTON, DEC. 11 -- Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze called today for creation of a zone in the Middle East that would be free of nuclear and chemical weapons and would include both Iraq and Israel after the Persian Gulf crisis is resolved.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who joined the Soviet minister at a news conference after two days of talks here, said he was sympathetic to the idea, but stopped short of saying the United States would ask Israel to give up its nuclear weapons.
Shevardnadze also flatly ruled out any Soviet participation in the multinational force massed in the gulf to oppose Iraq's occupation of Kuwait. But the Soviet minister strongly backed Washington's efforts to arrange high-level talks with Iraqi officials as soon as possible.
In three hours of talks today, Baker and Shevardnadze focused on the Soviet Union's economic needs. President Bush is expected to announce an aid package for Moscow Wednesday when he meets with Shevardnadze at the White House.
Baker said today that "there was full agreement" with the Soviets that any assistance provided by the United States should be part of a transition toward "long-term economic reform" in the Soviet Union.
On the future of the Middle East, Shevardnadze said that if Iraq withdraws from Kuwait "on its own initiative" and complies with United Nations Security Council resolutions, thus averting a war, then "what we will have on our agenda as a next item would be transition of the Middle East" into a region free of nuclear and chemical weapons. Shevardnadze did not mention Israel by name, but he said any new security structure in the region would have to include "other nations" in addition to Iraq.
Although Iraq is believed to be working on a nuclear device, Israel is the only nuclear power in the Middle East. Baker, questioned about whether he would ask Israel to give up its nuclear arms, recalled that he had said in congressional testimony last week "that doing this would require, of course, the nations in the region to subscribe to the idea." Baker did not explicitly endorse the idea of a nuclear-free zone, but he said, "We first need to take a look at" the proliferation of weapons in the Middle East "when we resolve the current gulf crisis."
U.S. officials, including Baker, have begun to discuss the possibility of containing Iraq's military power if the gulf crisis is resolved peacefully. But demilitarizing the region could prove extraordinarily difficult given other long-standing conflicts as well as the presence of massive amounts of armaments, many of which were provided by the United States and the Soviet Union.
Asked about the possibility of Soviet participation in the multinational force confronting Iraq, the Soviet minister said, "This option is not under consideration. This option is nonexistent."
Shevardnadze urged that the "grace period" given Iraq by the Security Council to pull its troops out of Kuwait be used for an extensive political and diplomatic effort to resolve the crisis. That period expires Jan. 15, after which the Security Council has authorized use of force against Iraq.
Baker, questioned about a report in The Washington Post in many of Tuesday's editions that the Soviets had turned down his suggestion that they send a token military force, said the subject had come up in previous meetings with Shevardnadze but he denied it had been discussed here.
Shevardnadze emphasized the urgency of starting the high-level talks between Iraq and the United States that Bush suggested earlier this month. U.S. and Iraqi officials have been jockeying over proposed dates for an exchange of visits by their foreign ministers. Shevardnadze said, "The sooner the contacts materialize between the United States and Iraq, the better it will be."
Baker expressed continued impatience with Iraq's refusal to set a date for his trip to Baghdad to see President Saddam Hussein. He said the United States had proposed 15 possible dates and Iraq had offered only one, Jan. 12, three days before the U.N. deadline.
"It's pretty hard to have a meeting unless both sides agree" on the time and location, Baker said. "So far we do not have that agreement."
Senior U.S. officials said they believe Saddam has been trying to use Bush's overture for meetings to buy time and stretch out the schedule of talks as close as possible to the U.N. deadline. They said the administration was taking a hard line and would be prepared to drop the idea of talks if necessary to keep the pressure on Saddam.
Although Shevardnadze had raised the prospect of an agreement on a joint statement about the war in Afghanistan, it failed to materialize today and Baker said it may not be finished in the "near term."
Shevardnadze said that both sides had agreed on general principles for a settlement, including free elections and an arms cutoff, but that the date for the arms cutoff was "still a subject of further negotiation." The Bush administration reportedly wants to set a specific date, while the Soviet leadership wants to leave it open.
In an effort to encourage negotiations on ending the Angolan civil war, Baker and Shevardnadze announced tonight they would meet with protagonists in the conflict Wednesday in Washington. Baker will meet with Foreign Minister Pedro de Castro Van Dunem, and Shevardnadze will have his first-ever meeting with Jonas Savimbi, president of the U.S.-armed National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).
In recent days, Angola's ruling party approved establishment of a multi-party system and discarded its staunch Marxist-Leninist ideology. The moves are expected to facilitate an agreement with Savimbi to end Angola's 15-year civil war.
The statement by Baker and Shevardnadze said they would attempt to facilitate a settlement, including a cease-fire, establishment of a multi-party democracy, free and fair elections with international monitoring, and the termination of arms deliveries.
Staff researcher Bruce Brown contributed to this report.