WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State James A. Baker III said yesterday there is an "excellent" chance that Saddam Hussein will withdraw from Kuwait, but only once he realizes that the alternative is military force.
Stepping up a campaign to win back American public opinion, top administration officials rejected hopes that sanctions, even if given more time, would dislodge Iraq, citing its large military stockpiles and evident capacity to produce its own food.
Mr. Baker vowed that in coming talks with Iraq, the United States would refuse to back off from U.N. resolutions demanding its total pullout, the release of hostages and restoration of the Kuwaiti monarchy.
But he assured Iraq that it would not be attacked if it withdrew and freed Western hostages.
"If he complied with the [U.N.] resolutions, his reward for that would not be a military attack by the United States," Mr. Baker said.
Further, he said that in the talks with Iraq's foreign minister here and with Mr. Hussein in Baghdad, the United States is prepared to discuss "political, economic and military" aspects of the gulf crisis. He reiterated that post-withdrawal talks on "differences" over land and oil could be held between Iraq and Kuwait.
As for Iraq's demand that talks deal also with the plight of Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories, officials voiced doubt that Mr. Hussein is serious about the issue.
"He simply is trying to use it as leverage within the overall context of his goals and aspirations in the Middle East," said Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney.
Television interviews by Mr. Baker, Mr. Cheney and Brent Scowcroft, the president's national security adviser, opened a crucial week in which the administration, before direct talks with Iraq, will try to regain congressional and public support for President Bush's policy of applying increasing military pressure.
The policy suffered a major blow last week with congressional testimony by former high civilian and military officials urging continued patience and time to allow sanctions to weaken Iraq to the point where it withdraws from Kuwait on its own.
Mr. Bush won congressional praise with his offer Friday to meet with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz during the week of Dec. 10 and to send Mr. Baker to Baghdad between Dec. 15 and Jan. 15, the deadline imposed by the U.N. Security Council for Iraqi withdrawal.
But despite the U.N. vote Thursday and Mr. Bush's diplomatic initiative, the president has been unable to win support from congressional leaders for a vote authorizing him to launch an offensive against Iraq if necessary.
"The president asked, I think, about seven times in our meeting on Friday for help from Congress. And he came away empty-handed. He got nothing," Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., said on ABC's "This Week with David Brinkley."
Administration officials and allied diplomats have said repeatedly that the threat of force is essential to persuade Mr. Hussein to withdraw, and despaired that he didn't believe the United States would be prepared to go to war despite a massive troop buildup in the region.
They have hesitated to assess the chances of withdrawal, however, citing Mr. Hussein's unpredictability.
Yesterday, Mr. Baker said, "We think there's an excellent chance that we could see Saddam Hussein withdraw from Kuwait once he understands, very clearly, that the entire international community and the United States as a whole is determined to see that happen."
But earlier in the same interview on NBC's "Meet the Press," the secretary said "we feel very strongly, we're not going to get a peaceful resolution, dealing with the personality we're dealing with, unless he knows in no uncertain terms that the alternative to withdrawal is a possible use of force."
Mr. Baker said "no one can tell you that economic sanctions, standing alone, will ever get him out of Kuwait," and said many major countries had been mistaken initially in thinking that sanctions would work "inside two or three months."
Elaborating, Mr. Cheney, appearing on the Brinkley program, said Iraq's imports of food before sanctions were imposed stemmed from incompetent economic policies, not inability to produce its own. Now, he said, "they should be able to maintain themselves from an agricultural standpoint."
Mr. Cheney also said it was risky to assume that Iraq's military would weaken from lack of spare parts, since its military machine is not currently being used. "He has enormous stockpiles built up," Mr. Scowcroft said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
Administration officials confirmed that Iraq had conducted yesterday its first test-firing of Scud missiles since April, a move Mr. Scowcroft said might have been a gesture of defiance.
"It could conceivably carry chemical weapons," Mr. Cheney said. The weapons, used in the past with conventional explosives, have a range of 360 to 400 miles and are accurate enough to hit cities but not to hit a "point target," he said.