Bentley: 'What they're offering is full of baloney' *Members of Congress eye Iraq's 'first step' toward possible peace but reject conditions. PERSIAN GULF SHOWDOWN


Three of Maryland's representatives to Congress reacted cautiously today to Iraq's withdrawal proposal, saying that it while it might be a step toward peace, Iraq's conditions are unacceptable.

A fourth member saw some hope in the proposal and criticized President Bush for rejecting it "out of hand." Bush called the proposal "a cruel hoax."

Rep. Helen D. Bentley, R-2nd, termed today's proposal a diplomatic "beginner" but warned against acceptance of anything short of Iraq's "unconditional surrender."

Referring to Iraq's list of conditions, she said: "I think what they're offering is full of baloney."

"I want our boys to get back as soon as they can, safely, but I don't want to give in to this guy [Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein]," Bentley said.

Bentley also said she would not apologize for the deaths of civilians killed this week in the allied bombing of what Iraq reported was a civil defense shelter, but which the Bush administration said was a military facility.

"All of these people are apologizing," she said. "I'm sorry, civilians will get hurt in a war. But I'm not going to apologize for that. What is the media hype on that?"

Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, R-1st, said Iraq's offer "looks like the first step toward a settlement."

"I'm really hopeful, mainly because we could possibly avoid a ground war," said Gilchrest, a Vietnam War veteran.

But, he added, "I think their terms, from what I can understand, are a little ridiculous . . . I think there should be no terms attached to their withdrawal other than that he [Saddam] withdraws. Then we'll talk after that."

Rep. Constance Morella, R-8th, was also encouraged by the initial reports out of Baghdad, which didn't spell out withdrawal conditions. But as the conditions became known, her optimism yielded to caution and even pessimism.

"When I first heard it early this morning, I was very excited," Morella said. "But as more and more of this unfolds it appears to be a propaganda ploy.

"There seem to be so many conditions attached to this statement that are [contrary to] United Nations resolution 660, I think we have to proceed cautiously."

Morella speculated that the Iraqi proposal may reflect Saddam's recognition that the war is not going well for Iraq.

Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-7th, saw more potential in the Iraqi proposal than Bush apparently did and expressed dismay that the "White House has dismissed it out of hand." Mfume said the proposal may contain "an encapsulated message that Iraq is willing to negotiate."

He suggested that the proposal may be related to meetings Iraqi and Soviet officials are having to discuss ways to end the war. "The Soviet Union wants so desperately to have some influence in this region once this is over," he said,

"This is a crafty proposal," Mfume said. "Politically, I know at home this is not having the reaction it's having in the Middle East. It puts pressure on [America's] Arab allies to come forward and negotiate."

He said the proposal may prompt a response by the U.N., if only to "try to get direct clarification from the Iraqi government."

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