WASHINGTON -- The Soviet Union announced last night that the Kremlin and Baghdad had agreed on a way to end the Persian Gulf war that would require Iraq to withdraw its forces from Kuwait "on a fixed time frame" with withdrawal to begin after a cease-fire.
The White House said President Bush had "serious concerns about several points" in the plan, but it did not elaborate. The United States would consult with its coalition partners and analyze the plan further, but in the meantime the war would continue, spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said.
Later, after an hour-and-40- minute meeting between Mr. Bush and his senior national security advisers, the Associated Press quoted an unnamed senior administration official as saying that the proposal was "clearly unacceptable to the United States."
Among a series of conditions that posed a serious dilemma for the United States, the plan called for dropping all United Nations-imposed economic sanctions before the withdrawal was completed and ending all corresponding Security Council resolutions afterward.
The plan, which could possibly drive a wedge between the countries with the biggest military commitment and their less-enthusiastic supporters, came as the United States and its allies were intensifying artillery action in preparation for an all-out ground war. At least one knowledgeable senator said it would be difficult for President Bush to launch a ground war now.
The Soviet-Iraqi agreement represented the first clear policy split on the Persian Gulf crisis between the superpowers since Aug. 3, when their two foreign ministers issued a joint denunciation of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait the day before.
At a televised Moscow news conference, Kremlin spokesman Vitaly Ignatenko said that Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz had delivered a "positive" response to Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's peace proposal, put forward Monday, and said the two countries had concluded that it was "possible to find a way out of the military conflict."
The Soviets were expected to brief the U.N. Security Council on the plan today, the Associated Press reported.
U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar refused to comment on the Soviet-Iraqi agreement and avoided reporters as he left U.N. headquarters in New York yesterday through a basement.
Mr. Bush's top national security advisers assembled at the White House after the Soviet announcement.
Mr. Bush was telephoned by Mr. Gorbachev at 6:47 p.m., and the two spoke for 33 minutes. While the president outlined his concerns, Mr. Fitzwater stressed, the United States has not entered negotiations.
"We haven't asked him to do anything," Mr. Fitzwater said of Mr. Gorbachev, describing the talks as a matter between the Soviets and Iraq.
"We have had our hopes raised before" by peace plans that, after serious examination, turned out to have "significant problems," Mr. Fitzwater said.
He said the ground war remained under consideration. Asked whether the United States remained insistent on full compliance with Security Council resolutions, he said that that was still "a goal we seek."
The president left later last night to attend a play at Ford's Theater, "The Black Eagles."
He then held a late-night meeting with his senior national security officials. Afterward, according to the Associated Press, the unnamed official said, "The main conclusion is that the Soviet proposal represents a conditional withdrawal, which is clearly beyond the scope of the U.N. resolutions.
"The Soviet call for lifting of economic sanctions and lifting the U.N. resolutions amounts to a conditional withdrawal that would be unacceptable to the United States."
He said that administration officials were communicating that conclusion to coalition partners and expected to make public comments later today.
Many of the terms of the proposal violated conditions publicly and privately expressed by administration officials in recent days.
Just hours before the announcement, a senior administration official had said that a cease-fire could occur only after a withdrawal was under way. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney warned this week against any pause in the fighting that would merely give the Iraqis the opportunity to regroup and rebuild.
The plan also gave no time period for withdrawal. The White House is reported to be insisting on a four-day withdrawal.
Different translations were offered by the Soviet Foreign Ministry and Western wire services on when the withdrawal would begin. The initial Soviet translation said it would start on the second day after a cease-fire, while the Western translation by Reuters said it would start on the day after a cease-fire. Given concerns about Iraq's ability to regroup its forces, the difference could be important.
The State Department press office said late last night that it did not yethave its own translation.
The United States has insisted on implementation of all U.N. Security Council resolutions, which include the restoration of Kuwait's ruling family. And Secretary of State James A. Baker III has said that at least an arms embargo should remain in place after the war to prevent another Iraqi military buildup.
The United States and Saudi Arabia have also said that Iraq would be required to pay reparations for its actions in Kuwait, a condition not addressed by the Soviet-Iraqi plan.
The plan was also silent on the question of leaving military equipment behind.
With what remains of Iraqi armor, said Anthony Cordesman, a military expert for ABC News, Iraq remains "the dominant military TTC power in the region."
Early congressional reaction was favorable, intensifying Mr. Bush's dilemma.
"What I would say if I were President Bush is, 'This is a good beginning. We'll give you 24 hours. We want to know A, B, C and D,' " saidSen. John McCain, R-Ariz.. "I think we can make a clear determination within a very short period of time." Representative Lee H. Hamilton, D-Ind., in an interview broadcast on CBS, said the Soviet-Iraqi deal must be given serious consideration if it "reasonably achieves" U.S. objectives.
He admitted that Mr. Gorbachev's decision to put himself forward as a peacemaker "is not well-timed from our [U.S.] standpoint."
Mr. Hamilton said the problem for the United States was that "a muddy, ambivalent, political solution could undercut a military victory, which we all feel is close." But he said, "We ought not to reject it too quickly. We do not want to lose a genuine opportunity for peace."
Earlier yesterday in a radio address to his people, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein vowed to continue the struggle and not surrender, appearing to cling to terms of his Feb. 15 withdrawal offer.
While not commenting directly on the Soviet peace proposal, Mr. Hussein denounced what he called added conditions to peace imposed by Mr. Bush and his allies that would end up stripping Iraq of all power.
"Remember how, in the period that preceded the announcement of the [Feb. 15] initiative, they and others in the West used to say that, as soon as the word 'withdrawal' is said, everything will be possible afterward," Mr. Hussein said. "Note how they now have revealed their greed more clearly than they did."
Western news media, he said, "are speaking now about depriving Iraq of strength and capability and of the manifestations of progress, honor and good example."
Iraq should receive "guarantees" in return for each concession, Mr. Hussein said, adding that, if Iraq's peace bid were rejected, Iraqis would be "more determined and more resolved."
He also said that Iraq wanted to open a door to "a comprehensive and equitable solution that achieves a real and permanent peace in the entire region, especially in Palestine."
Mr. Fitzwater said that Mr. Bush, who heard Mr. Hussein's speech, called it "very disappointing" but was not surprised.
Mr. Fitzwater denied that the United States and its allies had changed the conditions by which Mr. Hussein could end the war, while acknowledging that U.N. demands for "immediate" withdrawal and restoration of regional peace and security were subject to interpretation.
"Our conditions are the 12 U.N. resolutions, and those have never changed and won't," he said.
Actual withdrawal wouldn't come without "a little bit of ground war," one administration official said, expressing a personal opinion. But this would further weaken Iraq's military to the point that it would no longer be able to keep Mr. Hussein in power, the official said.
On Monday and Tuesday, President Bush sent two cables to Mr. Gorbachev that included the kind of withdrawal terms the United States and its allies would accept. France and Britain also sent comments.
Among the U.S. terms were an Iraqi withdrawal in a matter of days, immediate turnover of prisoners of war, removal of land mines in Kuwait and abandonment of heavy equipment, U.S. and diplomatic sources said.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday, Mr. Cheney said, "To the extent that we deny Saddam Hussein the equipment that he used in his invasion of Kuwait and that he's used to destabilize the Middle East, the better off we'll be in that part of the world."