BAGHDAD, IRAQ, JAN. 3 -- Iraq declined to comment officially today on President Bush's proposal for U.S.-Iraqi talks in Geneva, but a top Iraqi political leader said in an interview that Iraq still wants Secretary of State James A. Baker III to come to Baghdad for talks with President Saddam Hussein.

National Assembly Speaker Saadi Mehdi Saleh also indicated that a withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait might be negotiable -- a softening of recent hard-line rhetoric here that Iraq's occupation of Kuwait was "irreversible."

Saleh said that "speaking about withdrawing before the start of negotiations is useless and in vain." But when asked whether Iraq ruled out a withdrawal from Kuwait, he said that "any serious negotiation will inevitably yield positive results."

Saleh made his remarks before the announcement in Washington of Bush's proposal for talks in Geneva between Baker and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, and it was not clear that he was responding directly to Bush's proposal. But Saleh appeared to be aware that the U.S. offer was afoot.

Saleh spoke after the U.S. Embassy charge d'affaires, Joseph C. Wilson IV, had made the first of two visits in the last 24 hours to the Foreign Ministry, where Wilson said he presented officials with proposals for a date and site for talks.

Using language similar to Saleh's, Wilson told reporters that the United States did not rule out the possibility for direct talks between Baker and Saddam.

Saleh's statement marked the third time in as many days that Iraqi officials have expressed a strong desire to revive the idea of a Baker visit to Baghdad. A senior Iraqi official told CBS News today that Iraq would be flexible on setting a new date for Baker to visit Baghdad if only Washington would "pick up the phone" and make the first move.

The tone of Bush's statement suggested irritation at Saddam's refusal to meet with Baker on 15 dates proposed by the United States between Dec. 3 and today. Saddam had insisted that he could not see Baker before Jan. 12, which Washington rejected as being too close to the Jan. 15 deadline set by the United Nations for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait or face attack by U.S.-led forces massed in Saudi Arabia.

Saleh took pains today to insist that the impasse over previous efforts to agree on a date boiled down to little more than a question of diplomatic protocol: Saddam felt that, as the higher-ranking official in the talks, he should have been allowed to decide the dates.

"We didn't say this date {Jan. 12} is inflexible -- we can change it," Saleh said. "But when we said this date, President Bush rejected it and closed the door to negotiation. We from our side say that an argument over dates is not worth shedding a drop of blood" in a gulf war.

"We are serious about peace," he added. "There is no need for initiatives from one side or the other if we can just agree on a date for Mr. Baker to come here."

Saleh also signaled new Iraqi flexibility on the question of withdrawing from Kuwait. Saddam has been quoted almost daily in the official Iraqi press as saying the occupation of Kuwait is "irreversible."

When asked about the possibility of Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, Saleh recalled a statement by Saddam on Aug. 12 seeking to link the seizure of Kuwait to broader regional issues, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as Iraqi grievances against Kuwait.

When pressed again to say whether an Iraqi withdrawal is negotiable, Saleh responded: "Why are we discussing this in the mass media when this is a matter for governments to discuss directly? There are better methods to use than discussions through the mass media."

Meanwhile, Michel Vauzelle, chairman of the French Parliament's foreign affairs committee, arrived in Baghdad in hopes of discussing a possible European Community peace initiative with Iraqi officials.

Western diplomats here said the European effort could attempt to secure an Iraqi withdrawal with some kind of guarantee that Saddam's Aug. 12 proposal would be taken up immediately afterward, perhaps at an international conference.

"We consider that the European initiative has strong qualities," Saleh said.

On Aug. 12, Saddam attempted to link talks on the Kuwait occupation to negotiations not only on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but the occupation of Lebanon by foreign forces. He also called for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia.

"We are very serious about finding a just and fair solution to the problems of the region," Saleh said. "If your government is serious about finding a peaceful solution, peace will be achieved. But if the United States is just maneuvering, there will be no chance for peace."

A Western diplomat noted that the change in Iraq's stance follows a series of moves on the military front by NATO and Iran. The diplomat suggested that Iraq is beginning to take inventory of the forces now amassed on its northern, eastern and southern borders, including NATO's dispatch of additional jet fighters to Turkey and the thousands of Iranian troops gathered near Basra in southern Iraq for what Tehran called military maneuvers.

Iran is reported to be adamantly opposed to Iraq's claims on the Kuwaiti islands of Warba and Bubiyan, possession of which would give Iraq port facilities on the Persian Gulf. "The big question mark was Iran," the diplomat said, "and we didn't feel that they would accept" direct Iraqi access to the gulf.

The diplomat said Iraq now faces the prospect of simultaneous war on its borders with Turkey, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia, as well as in the northern region of Kurdistan.

Further, the diplomat said, Saddam has in the last week met with senior officials from the Soviet Union, France and the Nonaligned Movement, and all reportedly have given him the same message: A withdrawal from Kuwait is the only possible way of forestalling an attack by U.N. forces.

As the Jan. 15 withdrawal deadline approaches, diplomats say Iraq might be preparing to close its borders and halt all air traffic around Jan. 12. Saleh would neither confirm nor deny the reports but said, "When your government threatens us with a sudden attack starting on Jan. 15, it is the right of any government to protect itself."

News services reported:Presidents Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Hafez Assad of Syria, Sudanese ruler Omar Hassan Bashir and Libyan ruler Col. Moammar Gadhafi met for three hours in Libya, with no sign of progress toward finding a peaceful way out of the gulf crisis. Libya said the aim of the summit is "to find a peaceful Arab solution to the crisis of Kuwait," but there was no announcement whether the talks would continue.Officials from Iran, Turkey and Pakistan, meeting in Islamabad, Pakistan, called for an urgent gathering of the Organization of the Islamic Conference to urge it to negotiate a settlement.A second Iraqi "peace boat," reportedly carrying medicine and North African trade unionists, sailed from Algiers for Iraq. The purpose of the voyage, said Abdelhak Ben Hamouda, secretary general of Algeria's union federation, is to protest the interception by Western naval forces last week of the first boat as it attempted to break the international embargo and deliver food and medicine to Iraq.