Bush saw Soviet peace efforts as irrelevant President reportedly not in a mood to grant concessions to Saddam. PERSIAN GULF SHOWDOWN


WASHINGTON -- Despite a flurry of diplomatic negotiations, President Bush's long and unwavering preparation for a ground war suggests that he was intent on forcing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to accept either military defeat or complete diplomatic concession.

The world's attention was focused for several days on Soviet attempts to broker a peace plan, but Bush's aides say the diplomatic efforts were largely deemed irrelevant in the Oval Office, neither speeding up nor slowing down Bush's timetable for a ground war.

"I am told that there was no impact on this, outside of the military concerns of how fast we could get ready," Fitzwater said of the Soviet efforts.

It was at the suggestion of Gen. Colin L. Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that negotiations were cut short on Saturday. It was Powell who suggested that Bush set a noon deadline Saturday for Saddam to pull out of Kuwait or face a ground war.

Saddam's refusal to comply launched the ground war right on schedule, at 8 p.m. EST on Feb. 23, the date that had been chosen secretly almost two weeks earlier.

In the hours before and after the ground offensive began, Bush advisers told reporters that the president was convinced that the American public, like the White House, viewed the conflict in moral terms. The public was willing to accept the sizable U.S. casualties that might come from the ground offensive, Bush reasoned, in order to prevent Saddam from remaining a hostile power.

"No concessions, no face-saving" for Iraq, one adviser said late last week when asked how Bush was going to respond to the peace proposal put forward by the Soviets, which called on Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait within two days of a U.S. cease-fire.

Throughout the crisis, advisers said, Bush was consistently tougher than his advisers or the other allied leaders, with the possible exception of Prime Minister John Major of Britain and Major's predecessor, Margaret Thatcher. Bush was intent on keeping Saddam from dividing the coalition.

One adviser said the president believed that if he accepted the Soviet plan, Saddam would have been allowed to emerge from the conflict with much of his credibility and prestige intact inside the Arab world. Also, giving Iraq three weeks to pull out of Kuwait, as set out in the Soviet plan, would have provided it ample time to withdraw its heavy weapons and other munitions.

According to his advisers, Bush had realized since he first dispatched U.S. troops to the Persian Gulf on Aug. 7 that they might someday have to move forward to force Iraq out of Kuwait. While Bush spent most of his time during the early months of the crisis building an international blockade against Iraq, Saddam's unwillingness to compromise convinced Bush by November that he had to prepare quickly for a military engagement.

"We saw the hardship that Hussein was willing to put his people through," one official said last week. "There was no other option but military."

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