RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA, JAN. 10 -- When Secretary of State James A. Baker III got to the subject of war in his meeting with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, he was blunt but purposely vague. "I owe it to you, out of respect, to tell you what the consequences will be," Baker said. Referring to the Iraqis' eight-year-long, bloody war with Iran, he added, "Don't think if war comes, this will be parallel to your previous experience."

Baker did not get specific about the massive array of warplanes and missiles and high technology assembled by the anti-Iraq alliance in the Persian Gulf. Instead, according to a participant, Baker told Aziz, "Understand what you're up against. You won't define the terms of a war."

"We don't want to go that way, but we will," Baker said.

Baker's grim warning came in one of the most solemn moments of the 6 1/2 hours of talks with the Iraqi foreign minister in Geneva on Wednesday, the climax of months of effort by the United States to persuade Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to relinquish Kuwait. The talks ended in stalemate as Iraq refused to give ground on Kuwait. Today, U.S. officials provided a fuller account of one of the most fascinating and intense days of diplomacy in the five-month-old crisis.

It was a day that American officials had expected would be difficult even before they entered the Salon des Nations in the Geneva Intercontinental Hotel. For the most part, the outcome was what they expected. But several participants said they were confident that Aziz would carry back the message they wanted Saddam to get, even if he refused to give ground in Geneva.

This account is based on interviews with three of the participants and the recollections of a senior U.S. official who was involved in the meetings and spoke to reporters traveling on Baker's plane.

Even before Baker left Washington, they said, he and President Bush had concluded that the prospects for a breakthrough were slim. Bush told Baker that he wanted to be awakened, even it was the middle of the night, with a progress report from Baker in Geneva. They talked about the possibility that Aziz might walk out of the talks right at the begining of the meeting, and Bush said that regardless of the hour in Washington, he wanted to know what was happening.

The participants said Bush and Baker also anticipated that failure of the talks would create pressures for new diplomacy and they agreed that if things collapsed they would reverse themselves and invite United Nations Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar to undertake a new mission to Baghdad.

Baker also contacted outgoing Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze about sending a message to Baghdad before the meeting. U.S. officials said the Soviets had sent such a cable to Saddam echoing the U.S. statements that the Geneva meeting was the "last, best chance" for a peaceful resolution.

At the outset, Aziz was offered both a sealed 8x10 manila envelope carrying the original of a letter from Bush and a photocopy to read. When Aziz refused to accept it, complaining about the tone, Baker left both copies in the middle of the table. The letters sat there during the entire six hours and 27 minutes of talks; even during a break, Baker ordered a security man to guard the room because the letter was still on the table.

At the end of the talks, Baker gestured toward the envelope. "Are you sure, Mr. Minister, that you don't want to take this message?" he asked Aziz.

Aziz said he was sure.

According to the sources, the thrust of Baker's presentation was along the theme that Saddam had made a series of "miscalculations" and should not miscalculate again, as Baker said later. One official said the letter from Bush took a similar approach.

The U.S. participants said it was clear after Aziz responded to Baker's opening presentation that the meeting was not going to produce any breakthrough. "I do not feel that he had a great deal of latitude," recalled the senior official on Baker's plane. "The president's letter was rejected not because of what the letter contained, but because of what it didn't contain."

"I want to say to you that I think the minister {Aziz} did a very good job with an extraordinarily bad brief," the official said.

At times, Aziz tried to strike a professional, even "reasonable" tone, recalled a participant. He was "stoic" but unyielding. He talked at length about Iraq's view of the Middle East in terms quite familiar to the U.S. officials, with a heavy emphasis on fear of Israel and laced with references to a conspiracy among Israel, Kuwait and the United States. Aziz singled out the U.S. decision to suspend the commodity credit grain program with Iraq, subsequent limits on U.S. technology exports, and Iraq's anger over Kuwait's oil production, which Iraq considered excessive. "He said, 'Our perception is you have created problems for us,' " said the participant.

Most of the time Baker and Aziz spoke through interpreters, but several times Aziz broke in with English to make himself clear.

At a lunch break, Baker immediately went to a secure telephone in his suite and called Bush with a report that the talks were going about as they had predicted -- not very well. Aziz did not want to talk about Kuwait; in fact, he almost never mentioned Kuwait. Instead, he held forth on the Palestinians and the need for a broad regional settlement. Saddam's half-brother, Barzan Takriti, sat next to Aziz, but said almost nothing and seemed to be looking down at the table. Aziz took notes on Baker's comments with a blue ballpoint pen, jotting down rebuttal points, according to the participants.

As both Baker and Aziz recounted later, they essentially talked past each other for most of the 6 1/2 hours. They disagreed about everything from the origins of the 1967 Mideast War to almost every aspect of the current crisis. The Iraqis came away from the meetings feeling that the Americans had been arrogant, and the U.S. officials came away feeling Iraq had been intransigent.

The seriousness of the talks was interrupted, infrequently, with lighter moments. Aziz had taken note at the outset of an Iraqi saying that a person is not mature until after he is 40, and he said he was 55 years old. The room broke into laughter when Dennis B. Ross, the State Department's policy planning director, was asked by Baker to explain a point and Aziz interrupted him before he could begin.

"How old are you?" Aziz asked.

"I am two years past the point of gaining wisdom," Ross said to laughter from both delegations.

Breaking the tension at one point, Aziz asked Baker's permission to light up a cigar, and Baker recalled how he once liked to smoke them. At another point, Baker, surveying the bottles of mineral water that are a fixture at diplomatic meetings, said that "in my next life" he would go into business bottling water.

Baker told Aziz that he would hear discordant voices from the United States on the country's willingness to go to war. He urged Aziz not to confuse dissent with a lack of resolve. At one point, a participant said, Baker told Aziz, "Believe what you want to believe. But you'll have to live with the consequences."

At the end, each man offered the other a chance to say more, but both acknowledged that they had exhausted all they had come to say. Baker told Aziz he would speak to the press. Aziz was silent on his plans.

After Baker had spoken, Aziz sent an aide to the Cable News Network control room and asked whether Bush was going to hold a news conference. The aide seemed concerned that Aziz not be interrupted by Bush. After some inquiries to Washington, the network told Aziz's aide that Bush was waiting for the Iraqi to go first.

Thus reassured, he marched down to the hotel ballroom for his news conference.

Upstairs, Baker picked up the phone again and soon reached Shevardnadze, giving him a lengthy debriefing on the talks.