Diplomatic steps mount in gulf standoff No progress cited as countdown hits 12 days for Iraq


WASHINGTON -- With 12 days to go before the United Nations deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, a renewed flurry of diplomatic activity raised prospects for avoiding war in the Persian Gulf, but progress toward resolving the crisis remained elusive.

The Bush administration made clear yesterday that it was still willing to entertain proposals from Iraq for a last-ditch peace mission to Baghdad by Secretary of State James A. Baker III, even though President Bush had earlier insisted such discussions must take place by today at the latest.

Also, the White House was expected to announce today that Mr. Baker would travel next week to the gulf region, and probably also to Europe, to consult again with U.S. allies before the Jan. 15 deadline heightens the possibility of a U.S.-led attack against Iraqi forces.

Although the Baker trip has been planned for some time, it could facilitate a side trip to Baghdad if Iraqi President Saddam Hussein agrees to see the secretary before Jan. 12, Iraq's proposed date rejected by the Bush administration as too late.

Iraq's ambassador to Washington, Mohamed Sadiq al-Mashat, said in an interview on Cable News Network yesterday that he believed a compromise date could be arranged if the United States first accepted the principle that Iraq had the right to set the date.

"We will not accept dictation on us by anybody," the ambassador said.

While his remarks seemed also to indicate new flexibility, U.S. officials said they did not believe there had been any change yet in the Iraqi position because the ambassador did not directly contact the State Department.

That "indicates he doesn't have anything for us" in the form of a new proposal on dates, one official said.

Mr. al-Mashat, who returned to Washington on New Year's Day after a session in Baghdad with Mr. Hussein, instead contacted Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., who has been publicly urging the Bush administration to press harder for a diplomatic solution.

Following a 25-minute meeting between the two yesterday afternoon, the White House was told that there was no discussion of specific dates for a meeting between Mr. Baker and Mr. Hussein but that Iraq was willing to be flexible.

Administration spokesmen insisted yesterday that it was up to Iraq to make the next move.

"We have no reason to think they want to meet," said the president's press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, who noted that Mr. Bush had proposed 15 dates for the Baker meeting -- from Dec. 20 to Jan. 3 -- but that all had been rejected by Mr. Hussein. "Let's hear from them," Mr. Fitzwater said.

One source close to the diplomatic maneuvering noted that each side was now "playing for maximum advantage" but said, "if the issue is truly who calls first, I don't think that's going to stand in the way of further communication."

Plans for the Baker mission were firmed up at a White House meeting New Year's night between Mr. Bush and his top foreign policy and military advisers, officials said. The president also reviewed the status of military forces in the gulf region at that session, Mr. Fitzwater said.

At lunch with the president yesterday, Vice President Dan Quayle reported on his visit with U.S. forces over the New Year's holiday, telling Mr. Bush that morale remained high among the troops and that the Saudis and Kuwaitis were having "no second thoughts" about possible military action, an administration official said.

Meanwhile, Undersecretary of State Robert Kimmitt met yesterday with envoys from three European Community nations -- Luxembourg, Italy and the Netherlands -- to underscore that the United States supported "any diplomatic efforts that might result in a peaceful solution to the gulf crisis and that carry the uniform message that Iraq must comply in full with U.N. Security Council resolutions," spokesman Richard Boucher said.

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