WASHINGTON -- The United States, urging its allies to stand firm against anything short of total Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, said yesterday that Saddam Hussein may pull out partially on or about Jan. 15 in a bid to undercut the international anti-Iraq coalition.
"I think we should anticipate that as we draw close to [the United Nations Security Council's] Jan. 15 deadline and as the choices are presented starkly, Saddam Hussein is likely to try to undercut the collective will of the international community to use force," Secretary of State James A. Baker III said in remarks prepared for a North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting in Brussels, Belgium.
"Just as I believe he chose to release hostages for this purpose, I think he may take a dramatic step on or around Jan. 15. He could withdraw partially."
Saying the alliance was united in rejecting any "partial solutions," Mr.Baker added: "We need to anticipate Saddam's possible moves, be prepared for a partial withdrawal ploy and coordinate closely our responses."
President Bush, who spoke on the same theme during two public appearances at the White House, also hinted at the possibility of going to war very soon after the U.N. deadline expires.
Asked if he were now more driven to see action "at midnight Jan. 15," Mr. Bush replied: "Well, I think at midnight, if he's not totally out of Kuwait, the U.N. sanctions must be fulfilled. So let's see. I still hope for a peaceful solution to this problem."
The Security Council voted Nov. 29 to allow the United States and its allies to go to war against Iraq if it had not withdrawn totally from Kuwait and allowed the return of the ruling family by the deadline.
The United States raised the possibility of the partial Iraqi pullout as U.S. officials continued working to get Iraq to agree to dates for a high-level exchange of visits. U.S. officials here and in Baghdad have delivered a memo to the Iraqis recapping the U.S. proposal, in case there was any confusion about the dates offered.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz was supposed to have met Mr. Bush in Washington yesterday. But the meeting was called off after Iraq and the United States failed to agree to a date for Mr. Baker to see Mr. Hussein in Baghdad.
Mr. Hussein had offered Jan. 12; the United States wants to meet no later than Jan. 3, but appears ready to accept a slightly later date.
Anticipating other possible diplomatic activity in the days leading up to the U.N. deadline, Mr. Baker urged that any meeting with the Iraqis get across the message "that if he does not get out of Kuwait, he will be forced out."
"Any meeting with the Iraqis should reinforce the starkness of the choices, lest any miscommunication lead them to miscalculate once again, thereby actually increasing the risk of war," he said.
The NATO ministers, in a statement, endorsed a proposed meeting between the European Community and Iraq, but asserted: "There can be no partial solutions."
Mr. Bush told reporters that "a lot of people that think they understand him don't feel that he believes we are serious. They don't feel that he thinks we will use force."
The president said that a leader in the region -- later identified as President Turgut Ozal of Turkey -- told him that Mr. Hussein thinks "that our country is divided and we cannot go forward to do our part in implementing the U.N. resolutions. And he's just as wrong as he can be."
In citing the possibility of a partial pullout, Mr. Baker expressed TC worry among Arab allies about an 11th-hour Iraqi bid to divide the anti-Iraq coalition.
"What he is going to do, if he thinks a sudden, massive blow is coming against him, is to start withdrawing gradually," an Arab diplomat said. He could explain his action, saying he was acting to save the region from catastrophe, he said.
Actual withdrawal could take months, and stop at the islands and oil field that are the focus of his territorial dispute with Kuwait, the diplomat said. But if he manages to reduce the invasion to a border dispute, added the diplomat, "it will be hard to go to war against him."
Mr. Bush, after meeting yesterday with ambassadors from 28 nations that have joined or supported the multi-national force in the Persian Gulf, vowed there will be "no concession, no negotiation for one inch of territory."