WASHINGTON -- Iraq rejected a U.S. ultimatum to start withdrawing from Kuwait by noon yesterday or face a potentially devastating land war, and the White House said a ground offensive now "could come at any time."
"The U.S. ultimatums are nothing but aggressive ultimatums that we do not care about, because we are at war with them, and the air and land aggression is continuing," said Izzat Ibrahim, vice chairman of Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council, according to Baghdad radio report monitored yesterday by U.S. agencies.
President Bush, at Camp David, issued a statement through the White House a little more than an hour after the deadline had passed saying, "We regret that Saddam Hussein took no action before the noon deadline to comply with the United Nations resolutions. We remain determined to fulfill the U.N. resolutions. Military action continues on schedule and according to plan."
In the 12 hours before the deadline, the Soviet Union made a final effort to broker a peace in a series of telephone calls to world leaders.
Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, speaking to President Bush for 28 minutes starting at 11:15 a.m., appealed for a merger of U.S. and Soviet terms, which called for a one-week and a
three-week withdrawal period, respectively.
He also asked for a one- or two-day delay in a ground war to give the U.N. Security Council a chance to pursue efforts to merge the two setsof terms, according to Gorbachev spokesman Vitaly Ignatenko.
The White House didn't say flatly that Mr. Bush had rejected the idea, but the Security Council ended its closed-door session yesterday with no new developments.
"President Bush thanked President Gorbachev for his extensive efforts and reflected our general disappointment that Saddam Hussein has chosen not to respond positively," said a statement White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater.
Later, in a brief exchange with reporters at the White House, Mr. Fitzwater said that "the ground offensive could come at any time."
There were scant hopes during the day that Iraq might be yielding. At the Security Council, Soviet Ambassador Yuli P. Vorontsov said Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz had found "favorable elements" in the U.S. proposal, a U.S. official said. But Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations would say only that Iraq had accepted the Soviet initiative.
Friday's U.S. ultimatum demanded that Iraq publicly accept the terms and "authoritatively" communicate its acceptance to the United Nations.
Later, Mr. Ignatenko said at a televised news conference that there were hints that Iraq did not see much difference between the Moscow proposals, which it accepted, and the U.S. terms. He predicted that Iraq's attitude "will be changing."
But he also said that "today Iraq has lost this chance to make use of this good will," referring to the Kremlin's mediation efforts, and that if there was hope, it was that "the regime in Iraq will have the guts to withdraw its forces."
Mr. Ibrahim, in the Baghdad radio report, complained about the short timetable in the U.S. terms.
"Bush, who claims to have experience in armies, has shown by such talk that he knows nothing about armies or the requirements for their . . . withdrawal.
"It seems that he is still living under the influence of U.S. movies and their unsuccessful star, Rambo." He also said that Mr. Bush, "the devil himself," had issued successive statements and "continuous ultimatums" to divert attention from the Soviet initiative.
But as of midday yesterday, U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia had detected no Iraqi indication of pulling out, the White House said.
"Similarly, there has been no communication between Iraq and the United Nations that would suggest a willingness to withdraw under the conditions of the coalition plan.
"Indeed, [Saddam Hussein's] only response at noon was to launch another Scud missile attack on Israel," Mr. Fitzwater said in a statement.
"The coalition forces have no alternative but to continue to prosecute the war," he said.
President Bush spent part of yesterday morning taking a walk at Camp David with Secretary of State James A. Baker III and spoke by telephone with the president of Turkey and the prime minister of Japan.
Mr. Baker was called at midafternoon by Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander A. Bessmertnykh. The secretary expressed appreciation for Soviet efforts but said that from what the United States could see, the Iraqis hadn't complied with the necessary terms and so military action would continue, a State Department official said.