Fading hopes for avoiding war in the Persian Gulf appeared to rest Thursday with European mediation efforts and U.N. chief Javier Perez de Cuellar's mission to Baghdad.
Hundreds of U.N. personnel and their families were evacuated from the Middle East Thursday, and the White House urged all Americans to leave Baghdad.White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said Perez de Cuellar's mission offered "a glimmer of hope" but added the Bush administration "is concerned about time running out."
The U.N. secretary-general was to meet with Saddam Hussein on Saturday, just three days short of the U.N.-mandated deadline for Iraq to quit Kuwait or face possible attack.
"I hope that there is a serious chance for peace, and that is why I am going," Perez de Cuellar told reporters Thursday. But he said it is "difficult to say" what peace prospects are.
The U.N. chief's mission was announced after the failure in Geneva of the first high-level U.S.-Iraqi talks since the crisis began.
In Brussels Thursday, NATO allies were briefed on the U.S.-Iraqi talks by Raymond Seitz, assistant U.S. secretary of state for European affairs, who was present at the Geneva talks.
NATO said afterward in a statement that the alliance "shared the profound dissatisfaction with the lack of any Iraqi sign of readiness to comply with the U.N. resolutions." The allies also "expressed their strong and continuing solidarity" with efforts to implement the resolutions.
Seitz told the allies that Secretary of State James A. Baker III had assured Iraqi Foreign Minsiter Tariq Aziz that Iraq would not be attacked if it withdrew from Kuwait and that the United States did not intend to leave a large force in the region after the crisis ends, a U.S. source at NATO said.
Aziz later noted "grave differences" between his country and the United States and said Iraq was willing to work for a peaceful settlement to the 5-month-old crisis if Washington wanted such an agreement.
He said Iraq would not soften its position - chiefly that its invasion was just and any diplomatic solution must address the Palestinian question - and promised an attack on Israel if U.S.-led forces attack Iraq.
In Washington, Bush said Iraq's "total stiff-arm" of American diplomatic efforts left him with "less of a feeling" that the crisis could be resolved without war.
"The conclusion is clear: Saddam Hussein continues to reject a diplomatic solution," said Bush, who added, "We've got to keep trying."
Bush said he doubted Saddam fully realized "that force will be used against him" if he does not comply and was miffed that Aziz snubbed Baker's attempt to present him with a letter from Bush to Saddam outlining the U.S. commitment to the U.N. call for withdrawal and restoration of the exiled Kuwaiti government.
"I'd have to level with the American people: Nothing I saw today, nothing, leads me to believe that this man is going to be reasonable," Bush said.
France's defense minister, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, Thursday suggested the United States could do more to entice Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait.
"The United States could make a very little gesture that would permit Saddam Hussein to make a much greater gesture and to pull his trooops out of Kuwait," the defense minister said without elaboaration.
Baker was bound Thursday for Saudi Arabia to brief allies on the outcome of the talks.
An Associated Press poll indicated that if Saddam Hussein does not comply with the Jan. 15 U.N. deadline for leaving Kuwait, 44 percent of Americans surveyed said the United States should go to war. Fifty percent favored giving economic sanctions more time to work.