WASHINGTON -- Iraq formally accepted President Bush's offer to exchange high-level envoys as evidence mounted yesterday that Mr. Bush will enter the talks without strong congressional support for the American threat of massive military force.
"We are engaged with them on dates and arrangements for the two meetings," State Department spokeswoman Margaret D. Tutwiler said in a statement.
Mr. Bush had invited Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz to Washington the latter part of next week, but the Iraqis instead suggested Dec. 17, an administration official said last night.
Mr. Bush also offered to send Secretary of State James A. Baker III to Baghdad to meet with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein between Dec. 15 and Jan. 15.
In Argentina yesterday, Mr. Bush said he was "not optimistic" that Mr. Hussein would withdraw from Kuwait without a fight.
"I have no feeling whatsoever that Saddam Hussein is willing to do now that which he should have done five months ago, four months ago," the president said.
Meanwhile, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee balked at appeals yesterday by Mr. Baker to strengthen President Bush's hand in talks with Iraq and show strong bipartisan support.
Committee Democrats, underscoring deep divisions in Congress and the country as a whole, charged that the administration had concluded prematurely and with inadequate evidence that economic sanctions would not bring sufficient pressure on Mr. Hussein to force him out of Kuwait.
Before Iraq's acceptance of the exchange of envoys was disclosed, Mr. Baker told Congress that "if we are to have any chance of success, I must go to Baghdad with the full support of the Congress and the American people behind the message of the international community.
"As the Security Council did last Thursday, this Congress and the American people must tell Saddam Hussein in unmistakable actions and words: 'Get out of Kuwait now, or risk all.' "
The Bush administration had hoped that the U.N. Security Council vote last week, authorizing the United States and its allies to go to war against Iraq after Jan. 15, would pressure Congress into taking similar action and heighten the threat against Mr. Hussein.
But Democratic anti-war sentiments seemed little affected either the strong United Nations vote or by Mr. Bush's offer of talks.
"Now, I cannot say to a family that loses a son or daughter in a conflict that may well take place in the next 60 to 90 days that we exhausted every possibility for a peaceful resolution before this happened, because the sanctions option has not been exhausted," said Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md., in one of a series of lengthy, critical statements made by committee members.
Committee Chairman Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., said, "My mail and phone calls are running about 8 or 9 to 1 . . . urging the administration to slow down."
The challenge to the administration wasn't exclusively Democratic. Sen. Frank H. Murkowski, R-Alaska, urged Mr. Baker anew -- unsuccessfully -- to consider granting Iraq some concession to the Rumailah oil field in Kuwait, a key source of the dispute that predated the invasion.
Mr. Baker did note twice, however, that Kuwait's government-in-exile had expressed willingness to discuss Iraq's claims to territory, oil and money once Mr. Hussein complied with demands to withdraw.
Mr. Baker said that Mr. Bush had directed him and other officials "to work with the other members of the international coalition to reinforce the multinational force in the gulf and coordinate its efforts."
"Our aim is to ensure that if force must be used, it will be used suddenly, massively and decisively," he said.
Questioned by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., Mr. Bakehedged a question on which countries in the anti-Iraq coalition would most likely fall away over time. The six gulf states, including the Saudis, with up to 80,000 troops among them, would hold, as would Britain, France, Egypt and Syria, he said.
But he said there were "reservations" among countries that had sent only symbolic forces.
When Mr. Baker argued that the increase in oil prices, plus sanctions imposed on Iraq, had hurt Third World countries and the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe, several senators demanded that Saudi Arabia assist them with its profits.
Mr. Baker said he was personally "very pessimistic" that sanctions would work.
"Saddam is a ruthless dictator," he said. "He has an inflated sense of Iraq's leverage and a very high pain threshold. He undoubtedly believes he can endure economic sanctions."
Separately, CIA Director William H. Webster told the House Armed Services Committee that Iraqi civilians were likely to bear the brunt of the potentially devastating trade embargo, while military forces probably could hold out through the summer before losing any significant level of combat readiness.
Because Iraqi forces are, for the most part, kept in well-fortified, defensive positions in Kuwait, there will be less "wear and tear" on military equipment, longer availability of spare parts and, ultimately, an ability to maintain near-current levels of readiness "for as long as nine months," Mr. Webster said.
"Iraqi ground forces are more immune to sanctions," he said. The loss of foreign aircraft technicians and high-technology imports means greater problems for the Iraqi air force, but the current level of aircraft sorties could be maintained for three to six months, he said.