Bush offers Iraq last-ditch talks Md. delegation asks for caution


WASHINGTON - Returning to Capitol Hill today, several members of the Maryland congressional delegation brought President Bush a message of caution from folks back home: Be patient in the Persian Gulf.

"At this moment, I urge you to exercise restraint," Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd, said in a letter he planned to send the president today.

"Our policies -- indeed the policies of almost the entire world -- have been working," Cardin wrote. "Iraq has been isolated. Economic sanctions are having some impact. All hostages have been released. . . . I believe it would be inappropriate to initiate offensive military action at this time."

Cardin's views reflect those of some other Maryland lawmakers, who say neither they nor their constituents believe non-military options have been exhausted.

"Our best tools are diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md.

None of the Maryland lawmakers interviewed yesterday would rule out war as an option in the future. But none said the United States should initiate war immediately after Jan. 15, the date set by the United Nations for Iraq to pull out of Kuwait.

Congress officially returned for swearing-in ceremonies, ending its post-election break. Although not scheduled to begin formal business until Jan. 23, lawmakers are wondering whether they'll be called back to deal with the crisis.

Congressional leaders were planning to meet with Bush to gain his assurance that he would not go to war before Jan. 23, at least without first obtaining congressional approval. If Bush provides that assurance, Congress will go home, "on call," until later in the month, said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

As do a large number of lawmakers, Hoyer, D-5th, feels "we need to keep sanctions on and I think we need to give them more time."

But many lawmakers are reluctant to tie Bush's hands or suggest to Iraq that this nation is divided. Hoyer said he doesn't believe Congress is ready to pass a resolution calling for continued sanctions and no use of military force.

Lawmakers who want to give sanctions more time generally aren't saying how much time, though some, including Rep. Constance A. Morella, are saying desert-weary troops should be rotated out after so many months. Similarly, those who advocate exhausting non-military means are vague on what diplomatic steps the U.S. should take.

Morella, R-8th, went further than many in suggesting that "if there's a question" about the legitimacy of Iraq's boundary with Kuwait, as Iraq contends, an international body could look at that issue.

"Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate," Morella said. "I think we've got to try every opportunity that's presented to us and even create opportunities as we can before any military offensive is undertaken."

Rep. Beverly Byron chairs the military personnel subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, a post which puts her in regular contact with soldiers and their families.

"It's not a pleasant place to be," Byron, D-6th, said of the Saudi Arabian desert, which she has visited. "Yet the commitment is there. The troops are strongly committed."

If peaceful means don't achieve an Iraqi departure from Kuwait, she's ready to support the use of force. "If it comes to it, I think that's what we have to do," she said.

Rep. Helen D. Bentley said popular support for military action is dwindling. "My constituents are getting more and more against it," she said.

Bentley, R-2nd, expressed anger at the Japanese for "waffling all over the place on financial support." Japan has promised several billion dollars in aid for Operation Desert Shield but only some of it has been sent, Bush administration officials say.

A spokesman for Rep. Tom McMillen, R-4th, said McMillen believes Congress would support a resolution like the United Nations' Jan. 15 deadline, with the understanding that Congress retain "in essence veto power over military action."

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md., and Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-7th, have sharply criticized and questioned Bush administration actions in the gulf.

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