Administration officials yesterday expressed growing frustration over prospects for direct talks with Iraq, charging that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is stalling in an effort to postpone the Jan. 15 U.N. deadline for his withdrawal from Kuwait.
With the two nations at loggerheads over the timing of a trip to Baghdad by Secretary of State James A. Baker III, administration officials appeared eager to send a message to the Iraqi leader that they are prepared to see the talks collapse if he continues to resist an earlier date for the meeting, part of the diplomatic game of chicken now under way.
"He can see John Connally, he can see Muhammad Ali, he can see Ted Heath and so on on a 15-minutes notice," a senior official said in exasperation, referring to recent visits to Baghdad by the former Texas governor, the former world heavyweight boxing champion and the former British prime minister. "You're telling me he doesn't have an hour or two hours or whatever it takes between the 20th of December and the 3rd of January" to receive the U.S. secretary of state.
The official reiterated the U.S. position that the talks do not represent negotiations and said that, even if Saddam agrees to withdraw from Kuwait, the United States would continue to seek sanctions against Iraq to keep Saddam's military power in check.
Meanwhile, President Bush met at the White House yesterday with seven former U.S. hostages from Kuwait and Iraq and issued another defiant statement opposing any reward for Saddam now that the hostages have been freed. "Hell no," Bush said. "Not one thing. You don't reward a kidnapper."
Two weeks ago, Bush proposed that Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz meet him in Washington this week and that Baker go to Baghdad to meet Saddam. The Iraqis replied that Aziz would be free to see Bush on Dec. 17. But with no apparent progress on a mutually acceptable date for Baker's trip, the prospect of the Bush-Aziz meeting taking place Monday is fading rapidly, if only for logistical reasons, a senior official said.
Iraq has invited Baker to come to Baghdad to meet Saddam Jan. 12, but the administration has proposed that the Baghdad meeting take place between Dec. 20 and Jan. 3. State Department spokesman Margaret Tutwiler repeated yesterday the administration's insistence that Aziz not come to Washington until the two countries agree on the timing of Baker's trip.
When Bush originally proposed the exchange of visits, he suggested that Baker go to Baghdad between Dec. 15 and Jan. 15. But Tutwiler said Jan. 12 is unacceptable because it falls too close to the deadline for Iraq's withdrawal.
Administration officials remain hopeful that the Iraqis will yield on the timing of the Baker visit to Baghdad, but they are increasingly concerned that Saddam has decided to use the prospect of a diplomatic opening to buy time and gain sympathy. "He wants to get tied up so we get past the 15th," a senior official said. "It's another one of his ploys. He's very good at exploiting every opportunity."
Another official said the White House is "extremely frustrated" by the failure to reach agreement on the timing of the talks, in part because the administration has a series of related actions it wants to launch before the Jan. 15 deadline to reinforce the message that Saddam must get out of Kuwait. One of those actions is expected to be a meeting among the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council in which the group would demand Iraq's full withdrawal but promise not to attack if it complies.
Despite Saddam's professed effort to reduce tension in the crisis, he said yesterday that if Iraq were forced into war, "we would win the confrontation, walk on their bodies and step on their heads," Reuter news service reported.
"We want peace, and we'll strive and exert every effort to achieve it, in order not to reach a stage when each of us pulls his sword against the other," the Iraqi leader was reported to have told a meeting of his Council of Ministers in Baghdad.
In his meeting with the former hostages, Bush urged them to tell him if the administration is "screwing something up" in its Persian Gulf policies. But the group expressed full support for him, according to three former hostages who spoke with reporters later.
"The president assured us the situation will be taken care of," said Antonio A. Mireles of Annandale, one of the hostages who hid out in the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait until this week.
Ralph Montgomery, another former hostage, said he believed the world must act now to stop Saddam, rather than apply "a Band-Aid" to the region.
"I would say he cannot be allowed to continue to operate in this way," said Montgomery, who hid out in Kuwait after the Aug. 2 invasion. "Something must be done."
Staff writer Ann Devroy contributed to this report.