WASHINGTON -- Encouraged by hints of a new willingness to compromise in the Middle East, President Bush is scheduled to embark today on an opening round of consultations with key allies on how to secure a lasting peace in the region.
Mr. Bush, who promised at the end of the 43-day war to take advantage of the opportunity to tackle such long-standing disputes as the Arab-Israeli conflict, will begin with a five-day, three-nation tour to exchange ideas with other leaders from outside the gulf region.
His talks are to open this afternoon in Ottawa, where he is scheduled to meet with Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney; continue tomorrow in Martinique with French President Francois Mitterrand; and conclude Saturday in Bermuda with British Prime Minister John Major.
Mr. Bush's trip, his first since the war ended Feb. 28, comes as Secretary of State James A. Baker III is already in the thick of a diplomatic mission to the Middle East from which he has reported positive responses from the leading Arab nations to the U.S. peace initiative.
Enthusiasm from Israel has seemed slower in coming, but White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said the president "is encouraged by the progress that's been made so far."
"Perhaps some of these 4,000-year-old problems can be resolved," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, after a White House meeting between Mr. Bush and Republican lawmakers yesterday morning.
French Prime Minister Michel Rocard, who visited Mr. Bush Monday, described the peace process as being in a very preliminary stage, during which all of the leaders are simply exchanging views.
Also on the agenda for talks this week are proposals for controlling the flow of arms in the Middle East; for providing security arrangements to protect Kuwait and its neighbors from future possible attacks such as the Iraqi invasion; and for promoting economic development to help level out disparities between rich and poor nations.
President Bush is expected to make his own postwar victory tour of the gulf region this spring, including stops in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. Mr. Fitzwater said the trip was in such an early planning stage that none of the details, including the itinerary and dates, had been worked out.
Mr. Bush told reporters Monday that he was eager to go but that he would wait until Secretary Baker's mission is concluded Sunday before making any of those decisions.
While in Ottawa today, President Bush is expected to join Prime Minister Mulroney in signing the U.S.-Canada acid rain agreement that commits both nations to a 50 percent reduction by 2000 in the air pollutants that cause the devastating environmental problem.
On his way home from Bermuda Sunday, Mr. Bush is to stop in Sumter, S.C., to take part in a hometown celebration for troops returning from the war, the first of several he plans to attend during the next few weeks.
Asked why Mr. Bush did not greet returning troops at Andrews Air Force Base or other airports, Mr. Fitzwater said the president did not want to interfere with the warriors' reunions with their families.