Iraq's leaders on Friday pondered President Bush's offer to negotiate an Iraqi pullout from Kuwait. The Iraqi ambassador to France called it "an important step . . . toward peace."

However, earlier in the day, Iraq's ruling Revolutionary Command Council rejected the U.N. Security Council's latest ultimatum to withdraw from Kuwait. The seven-member body said Iraq would fight to keep the conquered emirate.There was no immediate official comment from the Iraqi capital Friday on Bush's offer to dispatch Secretary of State James A. Baker III and invite Iraqi officials to Washington for talks on an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.

The Iraqi leadership seemed taken by surprise by Bush's announcement. They immediately went back into session to discuss the development, diplomats said, but it was not known who attended the meeting.

Iraqi officials said later that the government would make no official comment until Saturday.

However, the Iraqi ambassador to France, Abdul Razzack al Hashimi, told the BBC radio: "This is an important step, really, toward peace, and we hope it is going to achieve what we are all striving for, negotiations instead of beating the drums of war. . . . I consider it very good news."

There was an announcement on television that major demonstrations would be held Saturday - Martyrs' Day - to protest the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing military force against Iraq if it does not withdraw from Kuwait by Jan. 15. The resolution was passed Thursday in New York.

But the nightly news passed with no mention of Washington's offer of talks. Baghdad's reticence was seen as an indication officials do not want to appear too eager to respond to Bush's initiative.

For weeks, Iraqi officials have said they would welcome talks with U.S. officials on the gulf crisis but rejected demands that Iraq first withdraw unconditionally from Kuwait.

Officials in Britain, Italy, Jordan, the Palestine Liberation Organization, Libya, Yemen and Saudi Arabia welcomed Bush's proposal.

One Saudi newspaper publisher, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, "I imagine that Bush would not have been ready to send his foreign minister to Baghdad unless he secured some encouraging commitment from the Iraqi leadership."

Libya, a longtime foe of U.S. policies, greeted Bush's announcement warmly. At the United Nations, Libyan Ambassador Ali Treikki congratulated Bush for making a "good step forward for a peaceful solution" in the gulf.

Yemen, the only Arab country in the 15-nation Security Council to vote against the resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, also praised the offer.

"That's the best news we have had in a long time, it's very promising," Yemen's U.N. Ambassador Abdallah Saleh Al-Ashtal told reporters.

Jordan, PLO praise effort for peace

"We welcome Mr. Bush's initiative," said Jordan's foreign minister, Marwan Qassem. "This decision complies with Jordan's proposal calling for dialogue."

Jordan has tried to mediate between Iraq and the nations supporting the ousted Kuwaiti government.

The Palestine Liberation Organization - also supportive of Iraq - called Bush's action "the first constructive step."

Kuwaitis doubt it'll work

Kuwaitis expressed doubt Saddam would bend and accept peace.

Hassan Abdul-Aziz, a Kuwait University professor and a volunteer in the Kuwaiti information office in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, said: "We are convinced this person and his regime understand only force. . . . We are heartened to see that almost all the nations of the world support us."

Congress reacts

Congressional leaders emerged from an hourlong meeting with Bush later Friday praising the decision to send Baker to Baghdad.

"It's an opportunity to express face-to-face to Saddam Hussein the commitment of the American people" to Bush's policy to end the occupation of Kuwait, said House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash.

Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, called the Baker trip "a good idea" and said he agreed with Bush that a special session of Congress was not needed.

But Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., while praising Bush for sending Baker to Iraq, accused Congress of wanting "to sit this one out" rather than meeting to adopt a resolution of support.