BRUSSELS, DEC. 16 -- Secretary of State James A. Baker III said today that despite what he called Baghdad's effort to "manipulate" the Bush administration's offer of talks between the United States and Iraq, he remains hopeful that high-level meetings can be arranged between the two countries.

Baker, speaking with reporters on his plane en route to a meeting here of NATO foreign ministers, said that "we hope something can be arranged" so Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz can come to Washington to meet with President Bush and Baker can go to Baghdad to meet with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein before the United Nations' Jan. 15 deadline for Iraqi troops to leave Kuwait.

Baker's comments, coming a day after Iraq canceled Aziz's proposed Monday visit, reflected a more optimistic assessment of the prospects for talks than U.S. officials had conveyed in recent days.

Bush on Friday put the Aziz visit "on hold" and sharply rebuked Saddam for insisting that Baker come to Baghdad on Jan. 12, a date the administration said would allow Saddam to extend talks beyond the U.N. deadline.

Baker repeated today that he is willing to go to Baghdad on any date between Dec. 20 and Jan. 3. He also declined to rule out a possible compromise date between Jan. 3 and Jan. 12.

"We're willing to go on Christmas Day because this is important and we are serious," a senior U.S. official said. "And we hope they don't come back with a request for a Christmas Day meeting, but we would be prepared to do that because of our seriousness of purpose."

Another senior U.S. official told reporters he was confident the meetings would take place. "We'll be going there. He'll come back to us" with a compromise date, he said.

The official said that, despite a claim by Iraq that Washington was "exploiting the proposal for a meeting as a pretext to justify its policy of war and aggression," later comments by a senior Iraqi official showed the door had been left open to compromise.

Iraqi Information Minister Latif Nassif Jassim, a close adviser to Saddam, said at a news conference that since Aziz's proposed visit to Washington had been canceled, Bush could select a new date for it and Saddam could choose a new date for Baker's trip to Baghdad..

"If you look at what {Jassim} said," the U.S. official said, "it was, 'You propose another date, then so will we.' We'll be going there. They'll be coming back to us" with more acceptable dates.

Over the weekend, House Democrats renewed their criticism that U.S. allies were not doing enough to help, saying pledges of financial support for Operation Desert Shield -- the U.S. military deployment in the Persian Gulf region -- will cover only 29 percent of the estimated $37 billion cost this year.

Baker said he was not going to ask the allies at this time for more funds for the gulf effort.

"I did not come with, as I have before, with specific requests," he said. "On my last trip to Europe there were certain specific requests, some of which have been fully honored. But I will reaffirm the request" Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney made last week at a NATO defense ministers meeting for additional support in helping to transport troops and equipment to the gulf, he said.

"I have said as far back as the original trip that we made to drum up . . . support, that as we moved into 1991 there would be further requests for support, and there will be," Baker said. "It's just that they will not be specifically broached" during this trip.

{Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, told reporters in a briefing in Saudi Arabia Sunday that he thought Iraq would put up a hard fight in an all-out war that could last six months, the Reuter news service reported from Riyadh.

{Schwarzkopf said Iraqi forces are positioned for a tough, defensive land battle, and if it came to war, "I'm not going to hold anything back."

{"It's going to be a tough fight," he said. "I can't say it won't last more than six months. I do not envision a protracted war (but) you can always get in a stalemate."}

A senior Bush administration official last week described this annual NATO meeting as a chance to "clean up" some NATO issues on arms reduction agreements with the Soviets that had been put on something of a back burner since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

NATO, now casting about to redefine itself in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet threat, no longer enjoys the same paramount position it once held.

While NATO meetings for 40 years focused on confronting the Soviets, a senior U.S. official said this two-day meeting, in addition to extensive discussion of the gulf crisis, would likely discuss ways in which the allies can help the Soviets cope with economic and political instability in the transition to a more free-market system.

Bush last week announced that he was lifting restrictions on aid to the Soviets and would grant up to $1 billion in commodity credit guarantees, and plans to provide emergency goods and medicine to help get them through the winter.

The European Community agreed Friday to send $1 billion in new emergency aid to the Soviet Union to alleviate food shortages.

Moscow in recent weeks has taken a hard line against political dissent and increased black-marketeering in the chaotic Soviet economy. Asked whether he was concerned that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev might resort to repression, Baker said: "We've made the determination that instability in the Soviet Union is not in our interests nor is it in the interests of the world. We want to see the reform process continue."