WASHINGTON -- President Bush said yesterday that war is not inevitable but warned that fighting may begin "sooner rather than later" unless Iraq begins "a rapid, massive withdrawal from Kuwait."
With narrow but still decisive majorities in Congress newly behind military action if it is deemed necessary, Mr. Bush said that a "critical moment in history" had arrived. He continued to stress that "peace is everyone's goal, peace is in everyone's prayers," but that it now was "for Iraq to decide."
If Iraqi President Saddam Hussein "started now" to take his troops out of occupied Kuwait, Mr. Bush said at a televised White House news conference, "certainly that would make a difference."
But short of that or of a last-minute diplomatic breakthrough, the president indicated there was nothing standing in the way of a U.S. attack on Iraqi forces sometime after midnight Tuesday -- the deadline set for Iraqi withdrawal by the United Nations Security Council.
Jan. 15 "is a very real deadline," Mr. Bush said. "I don't want to veer off from that for one single iota." At another point, he said bluntly: "I don't want to leave the door open . . . after midnight" Tuesday.
He added at one point: "What could avert war would be an instant commencement of a large-scale removal of troops [from Kuwait], with no conditions -- just heading out."
Discussing this weekend's last-ditch mission to Baghdad by Javier Perez de Cuellar, Mr. Bush said "let's wait and see" whether the U.N. secretary-general's initiative would produce a way for Iraq to avert attack.
Noting there had been rumors that some kind of "five-part peace proposal" might be offered to President Hussein, Mr. Bush said that he had not discussed that with Mr. Perez de Cuellar. "I know of no five-point proposal," he remarked.
Mr. Bush, who returned from his retreat at Camp David for the news conference and promptly went back afterward, was stern but seemed less tense than he has on other public occasions recently. But he appeared to be uncompromising on the order to Iraq to get out of Kuwait.
"I don't want to give any indication that we will be interested in anything that looks like delay," the president said. "It is a question of getting out of Kuwait rapidly, without concession. I don't want anything [said] here to be determined by him as flexibility on our part. . . . Should we compromise? Should we give him something? The answer is obviously not."
Even as he was saying in a variety of ways that a military option might become necessary, he did mention more than once that he had not given up on a peaceful solution.
Yesterday's remarks seemed to convey the same unbending threat of military action that Mr. Bush had sought to make directly to Mr. Hussein in the private letter he sent to Geneva last week with Secretary of State James A. Baker III -- a letter that Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz refused to accept because he found it impolite and inappropriate.
The White House released a text of the letter yesterday.
"We prefer a peaceful outcome," Mr. Bush wrote to Mr. Hussein. "However, anything less than full compliance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 678 and its predecessors is unacceptable. There can be no reward for aggression. Nor will there be any negotiation. Principle cannot be compromised. However, by its full compliance, Iraq will gain the opportunity to rejoin the international community.
"Should war come, it will be a far greater tragedy for you and your country. . . . Unless you withdraw from Kuwait completely and without condition, you will lose more than Kuwait."