President Bush, saying he was making "one last attempt" to avoid a war in the Persian Gulf, yesterday proposed that Secretary of State James A. Baker III meet with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz between Jan. 7 and Jan. 9 in Geneva in an effort to settle the crisis peacefully.

But Bush and Baker backed up the newest diplomatic initiative with strong warnings to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that the United States and its allies remain committed to use force if Iraq fails to withdraw from Kuwait by the Jan. 15 deadline set by the U.N. Security Council.

"This offer is being made subject to the same conditions as my previous attempt," Bush said in a statement. "No negotiations, no compromises, no attempts at face-saving and no rewards for aggression. What there will be if Iraq accepts this offer is simply and importantly an opportunity to resolve this crisis peacefully."

Baker said last night on ABC's "Prime Time Live" he is "not as optimistic" about peace in the gulf as he was before Christmas and now believes force "in all probability" will be used there.

The Bush proposal came as the 102nd Congress convened, facing a potentially contentious debate over the timing of possible military action to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. Congressional leaders welcomed the administration's new initiative and said full-scale debate should not occur until the results of Baker's proposed meeting with Aziz are clear.

Despite the leadership's wishes, two Senate Democrats -- Tom Harkin (Iowa) and Brock Adams (Wash.) -- sought to begin a congressional debate immediately on a resolution that would bar Bush from launching an attack without "explicit authorization" from Congress. Senate Democrats recessed yesterday evening without agreeing on how to proceed. {Details on Page A19.}

White House officials said that while they would prefer an affirmative vote from Congress supporting Bush's gulf policy, they favored no resolution rather than a divisive debate that could signal U.S. weakness to Saddam.

The latest proposal for a U.S.-Iraqi meeting represents a significant scaling back from Bush's original offer Nov. 30 to receive Aziz in Washington and send Baker to Baghdad for a face-to-face meeting with Saddam. White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater yesterday said Baker would now carry a letter to Saddam from the president, which Aziz could deliver to the Iraqi leader after any Geneva meeting.

Bush's offer also drew praise overseas. British Prime Minister John Major and Jordan's King Hussein, meeting in London, welcomed the proposal, as did German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar called it "something positive" and said he hoped there would be intensified diplomatic activity during the next two weeks.

Bush phoned Major and French President Francois Mitterrand early yesterday to tell them of the new initiative, and the administration sent cables to other allied partners.

Iraq said it was studying the new initiative, but U.S. officials privately expressed little optimism that it would lead to concrete discussions, saying they doubted that Saddam was truly interested in direct talks with the United States.

They said Bush believed the new offer, which was conceived during the president's Christmas vacation at Camp David, was necessary to demonstrate the administration's willingness to seek a peaceful settlement and remain a leading player in what officials expect to be a flurry of international diplomatic activity in coming weeks.

"It keeps the coalition partners intact and it also obviously helps domestically with the Congress to show we're pursuing this in a diplomatic way," one official said.

Baker leaves Sunday for a trip to Europe and the gulf in what is expected to be a final round of consultations with U.S. allies before the U.N. deadline. The secretary made clear yesterday that despite the new diplomatic overture, Iraq would remain under pressure to withdraw from Kuwait by Jan. 15 or face the possibility of forceful eviction.

"The dark days . . . of Iraq's cruel occupation are numbered," Baker said at a swearing-in ceremony for the new U.S. ambassador to Kuwait, Edward W. Gnehm Jr.

He added: "Iraq must now choose to quit the soil of its peaceful neighbor or risk devastating consequences. And so, as Jan. 15th approaches, we are closer and closer to restoring Kuwait's sovereignty, whether by peace or whether by force, but Kuwait's sovereignty is going to be restored."

Later, Baker said in the televised interview that "unless they {the Iraqis} withdraw peacefully {from Kuwait}, force can -- after the 15th of January -- and in all probability will be used." He said he hopes for a peaceful solution, but "I'm frankly not as optimistic about that possibility now as I was before Christmas."

In response to the president's earlier offer for high-level talks with Iraq, officials in Baghad had invited Baker for a Jan. 12 meeting. U.S. officials rejected this date as being too close to the U.N. deadline, although Bush, in proposing the talks, had said any mutually convenient date before Jan. 15 would be acceptable.

While congressional leaders generally approved of the president's new diplomatic move, at least one prominent Democrat cautioned that a meeting with Aziz alone could put the United States at a disadvantage.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.) said that with various "diplomatic entrepreneurs" seeking talks with Saddam, Bush could be "second-guessed" later if he declares that the Iraqi leader won't agree to a peaceful solution while those who have met with Saddam say he might. "I would take Saddam Hussein on the 12th rather than Tariq Aziz on the 7th," Aspin said.

Administration officials defended their new proposal as the best way to try to break the deadlock with Baghdad over when to hold the high-level talks. Fitzwater described the new initiative as "the next best offer" to a Baker-Saddam meeting, balancing a desire to meet directly with the Iraqis against a reluctance to allow Saddam to avoid the U.N. deadline by stretching out the talks.

Officials yesterday said Bush had not renewed his offer for Baker to go to Baghdad because he wanted "to put a new twist" on the old offer, hoping that might bring a positive response from Baghdad. The officials indicated a willingness to consider an alternative date for a Baker-Saddam meeting in Baghdad while Baker is traveling in the gulf, but they stressed that the Iraqi leader would he held to the Jan. 15 deadline.

"All he {Saddam} thinks he needs to do is buy time and the coalition will collapse," an administration official said. "Right now, his objective is to break the back of the 15th deadline."