Prospects of early talks between the United States and Iraq deteriorated Saturday as Iraq announced that its foreign minister would not fly to Washington Monday as tentatively planned and that "Iraq alone" will set a date for Secretary of State James A. Baker III to visit Baghdad.
The statement drew a rejoinder from the White House and a stiff warning from European Community leaders meeting in Rome."Today's public announcement is just a reaffirmation of the Iraqi unwillingness to deal seriously with the issue," said White House spokesman John Herrick.
"I believe Iraq's position of putting back to a very late date . . . an exchange of views which could be very profitable, is very damaging to peace," French President Francois Mitterrand said at the European Community summit in Rome. "If there is no movement, we will reach Jan. 15 (the effective date of a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait), and I cannot believe that Iraq is not seriously considering the fate it is risking."
The latest round of sparring over dates began with President Bush's announcement Friday that he was putting "on hold" a Monday visit to Washington by Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz until Iraq agreed to receive Baker in Baghdad no later than Jan. 3.
Iraq's ruling Revolutionary Command Council Saturday declared that "Iraq alone has the right to fix dates for foreign officials to visit its president." An RCC spokeman also denied that the United States had offered 15 dates for President Saddam Hussein to meet with Baker, as Bush said Friday. The RCC spokesman said Washington has suggested just four dates: Dec. 20, 21, 22, or Jan. 3.
Iraq has been holding out for Jan. 12, a date that Bush administration officials find unacceptable because it raises the specter that Saddam would use eleventh-hour diplomacy to try to extend talks beyond the U.N. deadline, thereby undermining U.S. leverage.
On Nov. 30, when Bush first proposed face-to-face meetings in both capitals, he said that any date for the Baghdad meeting before Jan. 15 would be acceptable. On Friday he acknowledged he should have been "a little more explicit" in setting a deadline earlier in January.
In Rome Saturday, leaders of the 12 European Community countries issued a statement at the conclusion of a two-day summit condemning Iraq's "inhuman and oppressive occupation" of Kuwait and warning Saddam Husssein that he alone is responsible for determing whether war can be avoided. (Related story on A3.)
The statement, which called for a complete Iraqi troop withdrawal and restoration of Kuwait's sovereignty and legitimate government, came in response to an appeal from Bush for reaffirmation of support.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, leading a delegation of six Senate Democrats on a trip to Saudi Arabia, said he hoped talks between Aziz and Baker "would occur" and would lead to "a peaceful resolution of the crisis." One member of his party, Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., was less optimistic. "My sense is that the prospects of war are greater than they were two weeks ago, in large part because of the way Saddam Hussein is using the meeting as a means of manipulation rather than serious discussion," he said.