WASHINGTON -- President Bush pressured Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein yesterday to set a date well before Jan. 15 for Secretary of State James A. Baker III to go to Baghdad and said he may ask Congress for authorization to use force against Iraq.
While accusing Iraq of trying to manipulate the United Nations deadline for withdrawal from Kuwait, the president said he would consider extending the dates he has offered for talks to beyond Jan. 3 if given "some compelling reason."
A proposed visit Monday by Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz is "on hold" until the Baker trip is worked out, he said.
"Saddam Hussein is not too busy to see, on short notice, Kurt Waldheim, Willy Brandt, Muhammad Ali, Ted Heath, John Connally, Ramsey Clark and many, many others on very short notice. And it simply is not credible that he cannot, over a two-week period, make a couple of hours available for the secretary of state on an issue of this importance, unless, of course, he is seeking to circumvent the United Nations deadline," Mr. Bush said.
Mr. Bush offered the exchange of foreign ministers' visits on Nov. 30, a day after the U.N. Security Council authorized the United States and its allies to go to war with Iraq after Jan. 15 if it had not yet withdrawn from Kuwait. The main stated purpose was to convey a message of U.S. and allied determination to Mr. Hussein.
Mr. Bush initially set the period Dec. 15 to Jan. 15 for the Baker trip but has since demanded that Iraq pick a date between Dec. 20 and Jan. 3 to allow enough time afterward for Iraq to withdraw totally from Kuwait.
"I wish now that I had been a little more explicit in my first announcement on what I meant by 'mutually convenient dates,' " Mr. Bush conceded yesterday.
He said he wouldn't agree to dates for talks that "would appear to theworld to be an effort to circumvent the United Nations resolution." Total withdrawal of Iraq's forces would be "a massive undertaking," Mr. Bush said, requiring action well before Jan. 15.
He said that he and his advisers have been "talking about" seeking authority from Congress to launch offensive action. A senior administration official said Thursday that the likeliest administration proposal would be "a declaration of support for the U.N. resolution."
If Mr. Bush did seek an actual declaration of war, it wouldn't be before Jan. 15, the official said. The administration contends it doesn't need congressional authorization to use force. But a federal judge Thursday reaffirmed Congress' power to declare war, and many senior members say Congress must vote on the question.
Meanwhile, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin L. Powell, told lawmakers that the Pentagon was weighing whether to ask Congress to authorize an extension of the tour of duty for National Guard and reserve support forces from six months to one year.
"It's a problem that will be upon us at the six-month point," General Powell said.
He and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said that a lengthy delay in going to war would call for "tough choices" by the military and could require the deployment of additional forces and reserves.
But General Powell and Mr. Cheney said that if Mr. Bush wanted the 400,000-plus troops to remain in the Persian Gulf for a long period, they could comply.
"I really don't think it's use-it-or-lose-it, Mr. Chairman," General Powell told Representative Les Aspin, D-Wis., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
General Powell also denied that weather would be decisive in setting the time for going to war, while saying that it would be "much more difficult to operate" in July, August and September.
Mr. Cheney dwelt at length on political reasons for avoiding a long wait: continued economic pressure on Egypt, Turkey and Jordan and the possibility that Iran might decide to break the sanctions and give neighboring Iraq an outlet for its oil. Jordan in particular was "a very serious situation," he said.
"There will be efforts by Saddam Hussein to break the embargo, to create political problems, to drag in the Israelis, that would make life far more difficult for us than it is at present," he said.
The prolonged presence of several hundred thousand foreign troops on Saudi soil would not be without consequences, Mr. Cheney said.
He conceded there were varying levels of commitment among the Arab forces arrayed against Iraq, with some just there to defend Saudi Arabia and others willing to join in the liberation of Kuwait.