WASHINGTON -- President Bush acknowledged yesterday that Kuwait's ousted government wasn't a model of democracy but refused even to address political reforms there until Iraq withdrew, saying to do so would reward Saddam Hussein's aggression.
"The objective is to see that naked aggression does not pay off, sir," the president told a questioner during a lively and at times argumentative exchange with Arab-Americans at the White House. He also said he was "not going to yield one inch" on the United Nations-sanctioned demands that Iraq withdraw from Kuwait and allow restoration of the government now in exile.
"Iraq is no . . . model of democracy, nor was Kuwait," Mr. Bush said. "That isn't the question here. The question is international law and respect for one's neighbor."
Administration officials have consistently rejected the idea of including a liberalization of Kuwait's government as part of a solution to the gulf crisis, insisting that Iraq withdraw and that Kuwait's "legitimate government" be restored first.
"We can't talk about dividing Kuwait, or elections not restoring the leaders or . . . permitting this aggression to stand in any way," Mr. Bush said yesterday. "Eventually, we may do this, but what you've heard is reiteration over and over again from this dictator that they'll never withdraw and all of that."
But the idea of linking Kuwaiti political reforms with a solution to the Persian Gulf situation gained some headway yesterday in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly by French President Francois Mitterrand, whose country has sent troops to the gulf.
Laying out a four-stage plan to solve the gulf crisis -- with Iraqi withdrawal and freeing of hostages coming first -- Mr. Mitterrand said the international community then could guarantee the restoration of sovereignty and "the democratic will of the Kuwaiti people."
Kuwait had an elected Parliament, but its ruling Sabah family had not stood for election since the 1700s.
The Arab-American questioner who raised the issue of democracy with Mr. Bush complained that a billion Moslems "from Morocco to Malaysia" were under the thumb of monarchs and dictators, ruled by "coercion and tyranny and terror."
Mr. Bush opened his exchange with the group with an address in which he condemned anti-Arab hate crimes in the United States, which he said included physical attacks, vandalism, religious violence and discrimination.
Meanwhile yesterday, the United States barred Iraq's foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, from arriving in the United States on an Iraqi government plane, saying he must travel via commercial airliner if he wanted to attend this week's U.N. General Assembly session.
An administration official said the diplomatic courtesy of allowing an Iraqi government plane to land was blocked because of Iraq's holding of U.S. hostages.
Earlier, State Department spokesman Margaret D. Tutwiler said that between 900 and 1,050 Americans remained in Iraq and Kuwait following the last scheduled evacuation flight Saturday. A total of 1,900 have been evacuated, she said.
Of those remaining, 93 have been rounded up and are being detained by Iraqi authorities, including nine who were seized over the weekend -- a practice which the State Department called "barbaric." Many of the detainees are being used as human shields at military installations and other strategic sites.
One of those recently detained has serious medical problems, Ms. Tutwiler said, and 69 Americans now in the two countries have health problems, some of them terminal illnesses.
The administration downplayed reaction to Iraq's threat Sunday to attack Persian Gulf oil fields and Israel if it were strangled by the embargo.
"What we're not going to do . . . is respond every day to yet another outlandish and outrageous statement that Saddam Hussein is making from Iraq or through his spokesman," Ms. Tutwiler said.
Turkish President Turgut Ozal said in a television interview on the eve of his meeting today with President Bush, "I think this [statement from Iraq] . . . indicates that an effective embargo is working."