WASHINGTON -- The United States and Iraq edged closer yesterday toward deciding on a date for top-level talks in Baghdad as Bush administration officials outlined their view of how the Persian Gulf crisis might ultimately be resolved without war.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III flatly rejected the Iraqi proposal that he meet with President Saddam Hussein Jan. 12, because it is too close the Jan. 15 deadline set by the United Nations for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait to be practical.
"We will not be a party to playing games that back us right up to that deadline, because, after all, what we are talking about is Iraq leaving Kuwait. That's something they're not going to be able to do in just a couple of days," Mr. Baker said during a television interview on ABC's "This Week with David Brinkley."
As a counteroffer, Mr. Baker announced that he is willing to fly to Baghdad any day from Dec. 20 to Jan. 3 "in order that people understand we're serious about this and that we think it's important that we leave no stone unturned in the search for peace."
Meanwhile, Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations dismissed the dispute over dates as a "marginal issue" that he expects to be resolved easily, possibly with a meeting Jan. 3 or earlier.
"I believe it should be no problem to find a suitable date," Ambassador Abdul Amir A. Al-Anbarai said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Even with the diplomatic exchange still focused on the schedule for a meeting that the United States insists will not involve negotiations, a formula for resolving the crisis peacefully began to emerge.
While reiterating that Iraq's total withdrawal from Kuwait remains a non-negotiable demand, Mr. Baker stressed that the United States would not necessarily oppose territorial or other concessions to Iraq that Kuwaiti leaders might later offer.
Mr. Baker said the U.S. role after Iraqi forces withdraw would be to buttress the Kuwaiti position in subsequent negotiations with a continuing threat of military intervention.
"We would see to it . . . that some sort of a security arrangement was in place that would guard against a repeat of what has just happened and that would permit Kuwait to negotiate on a much more balanced basis," Mr. Baker said.
Such an arrangement, involving a reduced but still considerable U.S. military force in the gulf region, along some of the allied troops also assembled there now, also would enforce curbs on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Mr. Baker said.
"What we would want to see is . . . [Mr. Hussein's] nuclear, biological and chemical programs under strict international supervision," National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft said on "Meet the Press" during a separate interview.