White House predicts congressional support for gulf war, A2.There was a rush of diplomatic activity Tuesday, one day before the highest-level U.S.-Iraq talks since the invasion of Kuwait, and France indicated it might pursue its own peace initiative if the Geneva meetings fail.

Foreign Minister Roland Dumas of France said, however, the Jan. 15 U.N. deadline for Iraq to quit Kuwait or face possible attack should be maintained. He spoke after meeting Secretary of State James A. Baker III in Paris.Baker, holding his final meetings with allies before talks Wednesday in Geneva with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, said there was "total and complete" agreement on the importance of the deadline.

"The chances for peace are in the hands of Saddam Hussein and Iraq," Baker said. He said he remained hopeful the talks could produce a breakthrough, but he emphasized there would be no negotiations with Iraq.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabian Defense Minister Prince Sultan on Tuesday denied reports that Iraqi aircraft crews defected with their planes to Saudi Arabia, the official Saudi Press Agency reported.

A U.S. military spokesman in Saudi Arabia refused comment on the Saudi government's denial. There was no immediate explanation for the contradiction between Sultan's statement and Monday's reports saying six Iraqi helicopter pilots defected with their aircrafts.

The information Monday came from an official Saudi government release, according to the U.S. military spokesman, who requested anonymity.

The Saudi Press Agency said Sultan, answering reporters' questions at a military graduation ceremony in Riyadh, "categorically denied that any Iraqi aircraft took refuge in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia."

"His highness described the report circulated by a number of media apparatuses as baseless both in its parts and as a whole."

The agency gave no further details.

In Bonn, Baker said the Geneva talks represent the "last, best chance" for peace.

But in his latest comments on the 5-month-old Persian Gulf crisis, Aziz indicated Iraq does not plan to budge - without U.S. concessions.

Aziz said Monday he did not think Iraq would quit the emirate by the deadline and predicted a war would be "bloody, long, terrible."

Both the United States and Iraq seemed set in their positions. A French lawmaker said France and certain Arab countries should launch a peace initiative if the Baker-Aziz talks fail.

If Wednesday's meeting becomes "a supplementary closing, Europeans must not link themselves to this non-dialogue between Americans and Iraqis and spend our days remaining inert while war and peace hang in the balance," Michel Vauzelle said.

He is chairman of Parliament's foreign relations committee and a close adviser to President Francois Mitterrand. He met last week with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.

Mitterrand, who also met with Baker Tuesday, has long suggested the U.N. Security Council resolutions do not bind France from seeking a diplomatic solution. France last week proposed, in conjunction with Germany, its own peace initiative, largely rejected at a meeting Friday of the European Community.

Dumas reiterated Tuesday, however, that France supports a linkage of Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait to a Middle East peace conference that would discuss Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Embassies in Baghdad weren't betting on peace. Some closed, while others shredded documents and planned overland evacuations if air routes are closed. Gas mask distribution was stepped up across the region.

Thousands of foreigners daily have been leaving Middle East nations such as Israel, which Saddam has threatened to attack if war begins.

And two airlines Tuesday joined others suspending or reducing flights to the Middle East. Alitalia canceled three of its seven flights a week to Tel Aviv because of the steep rise in insurance premiums, while Philippine Airlines suspended all flights to the Middle East.

Baker on Monday seemed to agree with the assessment that chances for peace are slim. Speaking in London he said, "I am less optimistic that we might achieve a peaceful solution than I was before Christmas."

Crude oil prices rose nearly $3 a barrel Monday to close at $27.65 in New York. Oil jumped to nearly $40 a barrel following the invasion of Kuwait, but prices had dropped below $25.

Saddam has tried to link the gulf crisis with the Palestinian question.

On Monday, Iraq Deputy Prime Minister Taha Yassin Ramadan said Iraq would insist that the issue be discussed in Geneva. "Palestine should come first . . . it is the core of all the problems in the area," he told a rally.

Aziz reiterated in an interview with CBS News that Israel would be a primary Iraqi target in the event of war, involved "in the hostilities from the very beginning."

Saddam on Monday threatened to make the entire world a battlefield.


(Additional information)

Utah Guard unit heads to Mideast

Almost 400 members of the Utah Army National Guard's 144th Evacuation Hospital were expected to begin their journey to Saudi Arabia Tuesday. The hospital staff has been at Fort Carson, Colo., since November after being called to active duty for 180 days in support of Operation Desert Shield. Utah National Guard spokesman Maj. Kent Demars said about 330 of the unit's members were scheduled to board planes shortly after noon Tuesday, with the remaining 60 members to leave Fort Carson early Wednesday.