Three key congressional leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), said yesterday that the Bush administration should not start a war with Iraq before making further efforts to arrange a direct meeting between Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

They warned that Americans will not support combat until opportunities for a peaceful settlement have been exhausted, and they indicated that the administration should abandon its refusal to hold such a meeting after Thursday.

"I have sort of a gut feeling the American people are not yet committed to war, and they want to make certain that President Bush has done everything, pursued every avenue for peace, before the firing starts," said Dole, who has generally supported the administration's policy on the crisis.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.), in an appearance on CBS's "Face the Nation," termed "some kind of a meeting" a precondition for any U.S. military action against the Iraqi forces occupying Kuwait. He was joined by Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, who called Aspin's statement "right on target."

Their call for compromise came as France announced that 12 European foreign ministers will meet Friday to discuss a potential joint diplomatic effort to resolve the Middle East crisis, a statement that appeared to catch the White House by surprise. {Details on Page A8.} The United States has previously discouraged independent diplomatic efforts, but had no official reaction yesterday.

Dole's statement on NBC's "Meet the Press" appeared to undercut the administration's stance on the timing of a Saddam-Baker meeting and may set the stage for a dispute with the executive branch when top congressional leaders from both parties consult with Bush on Thursday at the White House.

With the United Nations deadline for Iraq's withdrawal just 15 days away, Washington and Baghdad remain split over whether Baker's meeting with Saddam must take place before Jan. 3, as Bush has said, or after Jan. 12, as Iraq has insisted. While U.S. officials have not completely ruled out a Baker visit later than Thursday, State Department officials have complained that holding the meeting any closer to the U.N. deadline could allow Iraq to string out the discussions and frustrate potential U.S. military action after Jan. 15.

Aspin said, however, that this concern was undercut by recent statements from U.S. military officials, including the deputy commander of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, Gen. Calvin A.H. Waller, that additional weeks beyond Jan. 15 were needed to prepare newly arrived troops for combat. "If we're not going to go to war on the 16th or any time within, say, a two-week period {after that} . . . then why not have the meeting with Saddam Hussein on January 12th?" Aspin asked.

"A diplomatic effort really needs to be made . . . before the decision to go to war," Aspin said.

Hamilton, noting that military action is evidently now being planned for sometime in February, well after the U.N. deadline, said, "We must not let arbitrary dates determine our policy."

He added: "People are very, very nervous about the outbreak of war."

The White House yesterday spurned the suggestions. "Our position on the dates has not changed, nor have we heard anything further from the Iraqis," deputy White House press secretary Stephen Hart said.

Iraq's information minister, Latif Jassim, yesterday also showed no sign of compromise in a statement at a Baghdad news conference, Reuter reported. "Our president has set the date, and that is the only possibility. There is no change," Jassim said.

But Dole, reporting on a Saturday evening telephone conversation with the Iraqi ambassador to the United States, Mohamed Mashat, who was visiting Baghdad, said he had detected some new Iraqi flexibility. "It would not have to be on the 12th of January," Dole said Mashat had told him. Dole said he called Mashat two days earlier to express his frustration about the deadlock.

While Aspin bluntly criticized the administration for "badly" handling negotiations over the Baker-Saddam meeting date, Dole noted that Bush had not initially insisted that the meeting be conducted so early and that it was reasonable for Saddam to have assumed that any time before Jan. 15 would be acceptable.

Dole, who has visited with his constituents in Kansas four times since Congress recessed last October, said about a potential war that "it seems to me, as I travel around, the American people aren't quite there yet." He said even if nothing comes of a Baker-Saddam meeting, it would help bolster support for any later military action. "There's got to be flexibility," he said.

Dole added that he and others in Congress from both parties would raise this issue directly with Bush on Thursday. But he was careful at the same time to strongly support the president's overall goals and distance himself from the view of many congressional Democrats that Bush should defer military action for months while keeping an international trade embargo on Iraq.

Dole also characterized as a "big, big political mistake" a statement on Saturday by House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) that Congress should cut off funding for any military action if Bush fails to seek advance congressional approval.

"I don't think Saddam Hussein is hard of hearing," Dole said. "I think what he is hearing is a mixed message, because he gets {some in} the Congress on the one hand, the president on the other. . . . Secretary Baker can make it very clear that, notwithstanding our differences . . . we are united, and that means {Saddam's} total withdrawal from Kuwait."

Dole added that "the American people do not want war." But he said, "If you had one, and it ended very quickly, that would be one thing. . . . If it drags on, it would be quite another."

Staff writer Dan Balz contributed to this report.