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Bush offers to send Baker to Baghdad President calls initiative to Iraq 'extra step' for peace

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Armed with a United Nations endorsement for war, President Bush said yesterday he is willing "to go the extra mile for peace" by opening high-level talks with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Bush announced he would dispatch Secretary of State James A. Baker III to Baghdad to meet with Mr. Hussein before the Jan. 15 deadline by which the U.N. Security Council says Iraq must withdraw from Kuwait or face expulsion by force.

The president also told reporters at a news conference yesterday that he was inviting Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz to meet with him in Washington the week after next.

By reversing his long-standing rejection of direct meetings with Iraqi leaders, Mr. Bush said he was taking an "extra step" in the hope of avoiding war by ensuring that Mr. Hussein understood the seriousness of his purpose.

"I've been told that he doesn't necessarily believe that I am totally committed to what I've been saying, and here's a good opportunity to have him understand that, face to face," Mr. Bush said.

"We want to make the case to him, directly, for complying with the United Nations resolution . . . and then try to persuade him . . . to take the steps necessary for a peaceful resolution of the crisis."

The president insisted that no concessions would be offered to Iraq and that no accommodations could be reached that fell short of the U.N. demands for Iraq's complete and unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait.

"When you've done what he's done, I don't . . . see there's room for concession, there's room for giving something to save face," Mr. Bush said.

The announcement took Iraq's leadership by surprise, and there was no immediate response from Baghdad. But the Iraqi ambassador to France, Abdul Razzak al-Hashimi, said in a British Broadcasting Corp. radio interview that Mr. Bush's offer was "a very important step toward peace."

There had not been any signals from Baghdad to suggest that such a mission might be welcome, said Mr. Bush, though he reported that the besieged U.S. Embassy in Kuwait had received a delivery of fruit, vegetables and Iraqi cigarettes Thursday, with promises of medical supplies and soda to come.

"I can't tell you that I think . . . we're going to have great success on all of this," the president acknowledged.

With massive reinforcements of U.S. troops and tanks on their way to the Persian Gulf to be in place for a midwinter strike, Mr. Bush said he was prepared to hit Iraq with all the force necessary to assure a quick, decisive victory if peace efforts failed.

"This will not be another Vietnam," he declared. "This will not be a protracted drawn-out war. . . . And I pledge to you there will not be any murky ending. . . . I will never, ever agree to a halfway effort."

Asked whether he felt the threat posed by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was important enough to send one of his own children into a war -- as other Americans would have to -- Mr. Bush took off his glasses, leaned over the podium and said that he had given much thought to it and that only the president could make such a decision.

But he never quite answered the question, promising only that "if a shot is fired in anger, I want to guarantee each person that their kid whose life is in harm's way will have the maximum support, will have the best chance to come home alive, and will be backed up to the hilt."

The president also dismissed the prospect of calling back Congress for a special session to consider a resolution authorizing the use of force similar to what was adopted Thursday by the United Nations.

"I'd love to see Congress pass a resolution enthusiasticall endorsing what the United Nations has done," he said. "But what I don't want to do is have it come back and end up where you have 435 voices in one house and 100 on the other saying what not to do -- kind of a hand-wringing operation that would send bad signals."

Mr. Bush noted that House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., and Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, have the authority to reconvene Congress. But none of the Democratic leaders, nor House Republican leaders, favors such a session.

Mr. Bush also hinted he may never seek the congressional approval most lawmakers believe is necessary before he commits the nation to war.

He pledged himself only to "full consultation," later adding, "I cannot consult with 535 strong-willed individuals . . . nor does my responsibility under the Constitution compel me to do that."

The president's announcement of the diplomatic initiatives to Baghdad may have taken some of the urgency out of the growing anti-war sentiment on Capitol Hill, however.

Lawmakers emerging from a meeting with Mr. Bush yesterday afternoon suggested that no action should be taken until the results of the Baker mission are known.

Plans for the Bush invitation to Mr. Aziz and the Baker mission to Baghdad were coordinated with U.S. allies as part of a campaign to intensify the pressure on Mr. Hussein, diplomatic officials said.

The plans solidified amid indications that a message of allied determination to force Iraq out of Kuwait had finally been driven home to Mr. Aziz, if not to Mr. Hussein himself.

Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev delivered a tough warning to Mr. Aziz earlier this week in Moscow, and the message was conveyed in even stronger terms by Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze, diplomats said.

The Soviets believe that "the effect the visit had on Tariq Aziz was substantial," one diplomat said. "It knocked him between the eyes." Mr. Shevardnadze gave a full account to Mr. Baker at their two-hour meeting Wednesday in New York.

But since "dictators have the habit of shooting the messenger," it's unclear that Mr. Aziz has conveyed the full weight of the Soviet message to Mr. Hussein, a diplomat said.

A diplomatic mission had been suggested by other countries during the series of consultations leading up to Thursday's U.N. vote, a U.S. official said.

Representative Lee H. Hamilton, the second-ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, proposed a similar diplomatic mission at a meeting with reporters Tuesday, but the idea was dismissed by administration officials as unnecessary.

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