WASHINGTON -- Iraq probably will have to start pulling its troops out of Kuwait by "the first few days in January" if it plans to comply with the United Nations' demand for a total withdrawal by Jan. 15, a senior administration official said yesterday.
The official also claimed that while the president had offered a period of between Dec. 15 and Jan. 15 for Secretary of State James A. Baker III to go to Baghdad, Iraq was told through diplomatic channels soon afterward that the United States wanted the visit to occur well before the latter date.
The United States and Iraq remained in an angry deadlock yesterday over dates for the high-level exchange of visits proposed by President Bush on Nov. 30, when he said he would "go the extra mile for peace."
Meanwhile, at a meeting with returned U.S. hostages, Mr. Bush vehemently rejected anew any reward to Iraq for freeing them, saying, "Hell, no! Not one thing. You don't reward a kidnapper. You don't reward somebody that has done something he shouldn't have done in the first place."
Iraq has offered to send Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz to meet with President Bush next Monday, but the United States has refused to go along until an acceptable date is reached for Mr. Baker's subsequent trip to Baghdad.
Iraq proposed Jan. 12 for the Baker visit. The United States countered with any date from Dec. 20 to Jan. 3, to give Iraq time to withdraw from Kuwait afterward.
State Department spokeswoman Margaret D. Tutwiler dismissed the Jan. 12 date as not a "serious proposal." But she pointedly refused to rule out acceptance of a date after Jan. 3.
Iraq's news agency accused Washington of "spreading untrue reports about the fixing of the dates."
A senior administration official said, "You don't want to get diddled in going the extra mile, and they're diddling." He added that this indicated that "Saddam Hussein really does not understand the seriousness of the situation."
The official told a group of reporters, "We're interested in having talks that deal in the context of the deadline of the U.N. resolution," which calls for total withdrawal by Jan. 15.
"If it takes them a week or two to do that, they've got to start moving out by the first few days in January. So whatever you do in terms of discussions [has] to be finished and fulfilled well before the first few days in January," he said.
When a reporter noted that this point was not made by the president, who offered to set a "mutually convenient" date between Dec. 15 and Jan. 15, the official replied: "Let me put it this way. It was made rather quickly after that, in the detailed discussions between governments."