The Bush administration, bracing for what one official called "an explosion of freelance peace initiatives" before Jan. 15, began preparations yesterday for a possible tour of the Persian Gulf region by Secretary of State James A. Baker III and a series of congressional meetings today.

"We are in the period now approaching the Jan. 15 deadline {after which the United Nations has authorized the use of force against Iraq} where everyone is getting into the act or wants to get into the act," said an administration official, referring to a flurry of domestic maneuvering and European diplomatic initiatives taking shape this week. "Our goal here is to hold a steady course knowing all kinds of hurricanes, squalls and such are going to erupt."

In a move further bolstering the international coalition against Iraq, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization announced yesterday that Germany, Belgium and Italy in the next few days will be sending 42 jet fighters with at least 470 supporting personnel to Turkey to reinforce defenses along that country's border with Iraq. The action constitutes the first crisis deployment of NATO's rapid reaction force since the force's creation in 1960 and also marks the first time since World War II that German military forces will be sent abroad in response to a threat of war. {Details on Page A17.}

Bush met yesterday with Baker for the second consecutive day, and White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said it had not been decided yet whether the secretary would go to the gulf. Other administration officials said that if the president decides to dispatch Baker, the announcement could come today as Bush prepares to discuss the gulf situation with two sets of congressional leaders and Baker and Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney confer in closed sessions with members of the House and Senate.

Fitzwater said the Baker trip, if it takes place, would include a round of consultations with gulf allies prior to the Jan. 15 deadline for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait. Other officials have suggested that a meeting between Baker and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein might emerge as the secretary is traveling in the region.

But Fitzwater and Iraq's ambassador to the United States, Mohamed Mashat, yesterday each said it was up to the other side to take the next step toward breaking the deadlock over the timing of any such high-level U.S.-Iraqi meeting.

In Baghdad, Iraqi and foreign officials reacted with astonishment yesterday at remarks by Bush calling Saddam "the aggressor, the dictator, the rapist of Kuwait." Bush's remarks were made in an interview with David Frost taped Dec. 16 and broadcast last night on public television.

"Go and tell your president that he is the one who is crazy," one Iraqi official told Washington Post correspondent Tod Robberson in Baghdad. "If he will talk like this, he can have Iraq's answer on the 15th."

Middle East experts have said previously that, although Iraq has grown accustomed to international criticism, Saddam remains sensitive to personal attacks.

Amid the maneuvering over a possible Baker-Saddam session, the U.S. formally endorsed a drive by European nations to mediate the crisis, provided that the initiative adhere to a "uniform and consistent" message calling for Iraq's complete withdrawal from Kuwait by Jan. 15.

The European Community has scheduled an emergency meeting in Luxembourg on Friday of its 12 foreign ministers to review the gulf crisis. The ministers are expected to dispatch Jacques Poos, Luxembourg's foreign minister, to Baghdad for talks with Saddam.

At the same time, the chairman of the French parliament's foreign affairs committee flew to Baghdad yesterday in an attempt to mediate the crisis. Michel Vauzelle, President Francois Mitterrand's former spokesman, met with Mitterrand just before he left for Iraq but said he had no specific mandate.

Officials said Mitterrand and Bush discussed the move in a phone conversation, one of eight calls the president has made recently to world leaders as part of a White House effort to hold the international coalition together as the deadline approaches.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States supports "any diplomatic efforts that might result in a peaceful solution to the gulf crisis and that carries the uniform message that Iraq must comply in full with the U.N. Security Council resolutions" that mandate Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait.

Robert M. Kimmitt, undersecretary for political affairs at the State Department, met yesterday with the ambassadors of Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, representing the past, current and next chair of the European Community's rotating presidency. The session, officials said, was aimed at underscoring the U.S. position that meetings with Saddam are acceptable as long as the message conveyed to the Iraqi leader is not at odds with U.N. resolutions.

The public dispute over which side is to blame for the failure so far of a high-level U.S.-Iraqi meeting to occur continued yesterday, with Mashat appearing on Cable News Network and ABC News's "Nightline" to complain that the United States was being unreasonable and insulting in trying to force a date on the Iraqis. Fitzwater, in turn, repeated the American position that the United States had offered 15 days between mid-December and Jan. 3 for a possible meeting. He said it was now up to Saddam to "make any move for peace."

But Fitzwater, like others in the administration, refused to rule out a date after today. Bush had said last month that Jan. 3 would be the latest Baker could meet with Saddam because a later date, such as Jan. 12 as the Iraqis had proposed, would be too close to the deadline for Iraq's withdrawal and give Baghdad a further excuse to delay a pullout.

Mashat, in the CNN interview, complained that the "normal diplomatic way" of arranging visits was for the host country to set the date. But asked if Jan. 12 was the only acceptable date, Mashat said no.

Mashat also met yesterday with Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), a meeting Dole's office said had been requested by the ambassador. Over the weekend, Dole publicly urged the administration to make a strong effort to arrange a meeting between Baker and Saddam, saying conversations he had had with Mashat indicated "flexibility." The senator's spokesman, Walt Riker, said yesterday that Mashat said nothing privately to Dole that he has not said publicly.

Asked if Dole was engaging in discussions with Mashat at the request of the administration or on its behalf, a senior official said: "Absolutely not. Dole is being Dole. Like a lot of other people, he is impatient. He informed us of this meeting. He did not ask our opinion."

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) released a letter signed by 127 law professors from across the nation insisting that Bush has a constitutional obligation to "obtain prior express congressional authorization" before ordering U.S. forces into war in the gulf.

Kennedy said that if Bush does not seek congressional approval for offensive operations in the gulf, then Congress should pass a resolution demanding that the president seek authorization before committing U.S. troops into combat.