WASHINGTON -- U.S. officials tried to decipher the meaning of an Iraqi pledge to cooperate with the Soviet Union on ending the gulf war last night after working with allies earlier to block a public debate in the U.N. Security Council today.
With the war ending its fourth week, allied bombers continued to pound buildings in and around the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, as well as hundreds of targets in the battlefield of southern Iraq and Kuwait. Coalition warplanes flew more than 900 combat missions yesterday against Iraqi positions in occupied Kuwait and southern Iraq.
President Saddam Hussein said Iraq was willing to cooperate with the Soviet Union, which has sent a special envoy to Baghdad, in seeking an end to the Persian Gulf war, Iraqi radio reported. But the report mentioned nothing about Iraq's willingness to withdraw from Kuwait.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said officials had seen news reports, but added, according to Reuters, "We don't have any details of their discussions. But finding a solution would have to start with Iraq getting out of Kuwait and complying with the U.N. resolutions."
A senior administration official noted that Mr. Hussein had omitted any mention of Kuwait and appeared to be demanding that the gulf war be resolved in conjunction with the Palestinian conflict -- a demand the United States consistently has rejected.
The official said it was impossible to say at this point what Mr. Hussein meant by "cooperation" with the Soviets, given Moscow's recent endorsement of a demand that Iraq take immediate and "concrete" steps to implement the U.N. resolutions. The official said the Soviets were expected to give the United States a full account of envoy Yevgeny M. Primakov's meetings in Baghdad.
Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a Pentagon briefing that Iraqi soldiers remained hunkered down in their reinforced positions in the desert, "sitting still and getting hit, relentlessly getting hit."
"If [Iraqi forces] are saving their Sunday punch, they may be losing it even as we speak," he said.
With Iraq's air force either outgunned, hiding in Iran or destroyed, military officials said, any effort by Mr. Hussein to send his ground troops into Saudi Arabia would have to be made without aerial support.
"They're really on the horns of a dilemma as to what to do, and I think that's what they're thinking about right now," General Kelly said.
Today's Security Council session, the first on the gulf war since the outbreak of hostilities, was pushed by Cuba and Yemen, acting on behalf of North African countries whose populations are becoming increasingly restive over the heavy allied bombardment of Iraq. It was to start informally late this morning, with a formal session this afternoon.
The United States and Britain, leading the effort to close the afternoon session, were likely to get the necessary votes to do so, despite a threat by Yemen and Cuba to walk out. France, another partner in the military coalition, also favored closing the meeting, as did the Soviet Union. China's stance was uncertain.
The United States argued that a formal meeting was unnecessary.
"We see no need for yet another formal session on something the council has dealt with repeatedly in 12 resolutions," a U.S. official said.
Proponents of today's session have argued for a cease-fire to allow for a diplomatic solution but haven't put forward a resolution, a Western diplomat said.
Britain's ambassador to the United Nations, David Hannay, said an open council session would serve merely as a forum for some nations to "voice unhappiness about the way war is being waged" and "exchange preordained, pre-drafted speeches, which have no element of dialogue."
On the eve of the U.N. meeting, spokesmen for the Non-Aligned Movement, meeting in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, said that organization would send a mission to Baghdad. And Iran, in a new development, said it had received an encouraging response to its peace plan from Mr. Hussein.
In Washington yesterday, President Bush drew support for his decision to delay ground action from France and Britain, during visits by their defense ministers.
But France's Pierre Joxe expressed a different view from the United States' postwar scenario, indicating that France was prepared to contribute to the reconstruction of Iraq after the war -- regardless of whether Mr. Hussein's regime remained in power.
"We, of course, are ready to participate in the reconstruction of any country whose people have suffered," Mr. Joxe said.
Britain's Tom King said that before a land campaign can be launched successfully, "we have to see a significant impairment of the Iraqi military capability in the Kuwait theater of operations."
"We are determined to see it done with the minimum risk of significant casualties for the allied forces involved and also for the minimum casualties of the poor Kuwaiti people," he said.
"We need to reduce the number of tanks, of artillery, of armored personnel carriers that they have. We need to cut their ammunition stocks. We need to cut their channels of communications."
Mr. King said a ground war decision "has to be initially a military judgment." But France's defense minister, Mr. Joxe, said the decision on launching ground action would stem from "a mix of military and political considerations."
In a possible preview of future ground action, U.S. and Saudi military forces joined yesterday in a pre-dawn assault on an Iraqi position in the southern Kuwaiti desert.
The three-hour-long attack involved three Saudi artillery battalions, a Marine artillery battalion, six rounds fired by the battleship Missouri and strikes by Marine aircraft, officials said. Their target was described as "a pretty sizable assembly area" of Iraqi artillery, tanks and other vehicles.
As described by the officer, the mission was a dress rehearsal for larger-scale operations that might be used to draw Iraqi ground forces out of their prepared defenses, to make them easier targets for air strikes.
For U.S. commanders, the operation provided a test of their ability to manage a strike involving several coalition members and firing from land, air and sea. An officer expressed satisfaction with the results, as did a spokesman for the Saudi forces. No report on Iraqi damage or casualties was available.
Military officials also disclosed that more than 50 oil well fires have been burning for more than a week in the oil fields of Kuwait. They said that Iraq apparently started most of them but that some may have resulted from allied bombing raids.
U.S. spokesmen denied that dense smoke from the fires, which can be seen from across the border in Saudi Arabia, was interfering with bombing runs against Iraqi forces in the area.
In Baghdad, fireballs rose in the air after allied raids scored direct hits on two government buildings, the ministries of justice and local government, near densely populated Haifa Street, a business and residential route in the city center, the Associated Press reported. Witnesses said at least six people died on Haifa Street and 17 were wounded, many seriously, and residential neighborhoods adjacent to the buildings also were damaged.
Allied warplanes reportedly attacked the ministry of local government Jan. 22 but inflicted only slight damage. The ministry is headed by Ali Hassan al-Majid, a cousin and close aide to Mr. Hussein who was put in charge of Kuwait after Iraq's invasion.
There was no indication that Mr. al-Majid was at the ministry during the attacks.
Also yesterday, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney authorized the military services to exceed their budgets for operations and maintenance in the current budget year, largely to cover the unexpectedly high cost of transporting supplies and equipment to U.S. forces in the gulf. Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams did not indicate how much the transportation costs would add to the $69 billion approved by Congress for maintenance and operations this year.