U.S. and Saudi troops backed by hundreds of planes staged maneuvers near the Kuwaiti border Friday, and Secretary of State James A. Baker III was in Europe for talks that will include the Persian Gulf crisis.
President Bush leaves tonight to join Baker for further discussions with allies, then spend Thanksgiving with U.S. soldiers in Saudi Arabia. It would be the first presidential visit to front-line troops since the Vietnam war.Iraqi President Saddam Hussein suggested a peaceful solution was still possible and indicated he could release Western hostages if Bush promised not to attack Iraq, an offer the United States has previously rejected.
U.S. officials were gauging international reaction to a possible U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing force to drive Iraq from Kuwait. Some diplomats said the resolution could come by the end of the month.
The Soviet Union's top Middle East envoy, Yevgeny Primakov, told The New York Times on Thursday the introduction of such a resolution should be delayed to give time for talks on a "face-saving" Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. He said those talks could include discussion of the Palestinian question.
About 1,000 U.S. troops and an unknown number of Saudi soldiers were taking part in the six-day "Imminent Thunder" maneuvers, which began Thursday about 100 miles south of the Kuwaiti border. Also involved are about 1,100 aircraft and 16 ships, including the aircraft carrier USS Midway.
The Iraqis denounced the exercise as "a clear act of provocation," but a U.S. Navy spokesman, Cmdr. J.D. Van Sickle, said it was purely for training. He said the code name had no particular significance.
The U.S. military gave no location for an amphibious landing expected Sunday. Conflicting media reports said it would be anywhere from 10 miles to 75 miles south of the Kuwaiti border. No live ammunition was to be used.
Bush is to travel to Europe and the Mideast on his eight-day trip. He is to spend Thanksgiving in Saudi Arabia, base for the 300,000-strong multinational force deployed against Iraq after its Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait.
The last U.S. president to visit front-line forces was Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam war in 1967.
In a Cable News Network interview Thursday, Bush said he wanted to send a signal to Saddam that "we are deadly serious" about getting Iraq out of Kuwait.
Before heading to the Middle East, Bush was to meet on the gulf crisis with leaders of the Soviet Union, Britain and France at a three-day Paris gathering of the 34-nation Conference on Security and European Cooperation.
In particular, U.S. officials said Bush planned to sound out members of the 15-member U.N. Security Council on the wording of a proposed resolution to authorize force against Iraq.
An aide to Baker said the United States would like to introduce the resolution this month while its diplomat still presides over the council. Yemen, a pro-Iraqi council member, will hold the presidency for December.
Baker was in Brussels, Belgium, Friday for trade talks with representatives from the 12-nation European Economic Community. Saddam, meanwhile, said Iraq still seeks a peaceful solution.
"Iraq, for its part, sees that the right way to go is the course for peace, and that peace should be comprehensive, complete and final," Saddam said in an ABC-TV interview broadcast Thursday.
But Saddam made no peace proposals and also said that "whoever hits us, we shall hit them back." Saddam has said that any peace talks must also cover Israel's occupation of lands claimed by Palestinians.
Some relatives of American hostages say they plan to take Saddam's offer to visit Iraq during the holidays. State Department officials said the government has advised against the trips.
More than 100 Americans and their foreign-born family members were to leave Kuwait on Sunday aboard a U.S.-chartered Iraqi Airways flight, the State Department said. Most were women and children who have been eligible to leave for some time but decided only recently to depart, said a State Department spokesman.