WASHINGTON -- Former British Prime Minister Edward Heath, who visited Iraqi President Saddam Hussein two months ago, chastised the United States yesterday for not pursuing a diplomatic solution more vigorously in the Persian Gulf, saying that Mr. Hussein would be willing to negotiate a solution without linking it to the issue of a Palestinian home
Mr. Heath, appearing before the House Armed Services Committee, also said that the cooperation of other Arab nations will be needed to make any U.S.-Iraq agreement work. Back-channel diplomatic talks between those nations and Iraq are already taking place, Mr. Heath said, though he refused to offer details.
Mr. Heath's remarks drew a sharp response from the White House.
"We disagree, quite obviously," spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said. He pointed out that U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar tried without success in September to find a diplomatic solution during a two-day visit to the Iraq.
Mr. Fitzwater and Secretary of State James A. Baker III also mentioned that yesterday was the first of 15 days, ending Jan. 3, offered by President Bush as dates for diplomatic talks.
hope very much that Iraq will choose to pick up on one of these dates," Mr. Baker said, "because we believe that if they don't, they perhaps could regret it later."
President Bush wants talks held by that time because of a Jan. 15 deadline imposed by a United Nations resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraqi troops if they have not yet withdrawn from Kuwait.
Mr. Heath had nothing complimentary to say about either the U.N. deadline or Mr. Bush's meeting timetable, calling both inflexible. Mr. Hussein has suggested talks be held in Baghdad on Jan. 12, and Mr. Heath said the two sides should meet sometime in the middle.
But mostly Mr. Heath was critical of what he termed an over-emphasis on either attacking the Iraqi army or starving it out with aggressive economic sanctions. In stating that position, he chastised both the United States and his own government in Great Britain.
"It is now essential that we put the emphasis on the diplomatic action that has got to be taken if there's going to be a solution," he said.
Mr. Heath also called for an end to the argument that Mr. Hussein cannot be negotiated with because he is an inflexible madman.
"He's not mad; he's clever, and astute," Mr. Heath said. "He does things that are unexpected . . . so I do not take the view that he will never change his position, not for a moment."
Despite previous assertions by Mr. Hussein that any talks about Kuwait would have to be linked to discussions of Israel and the question of a Palestinian homeland, Mr. Heath said he's convinced Mr. Hussein would back down from that demand.
When asked by Representative Curt Weldon, R-Pa., how Mr. Hussein could be trusted to honor an agreement, Mr. Heath said that trust wouldn't be necessary. He suggested using the cooperation of Arab nations to establish a buffer zone along the Iraq-Kuwait border.
For that matter, he said, "in order to achieve [a solution], Arab influence has got to be used to the greatest extent possible."
If war does break out, Mr. Heath said, he does not think Mr. Hussein would refrain from using poison gas or biological weapons. He said Mr. Hussein told him that's because he knows "that if the going gets hot, the Americans and British will use atomic weapons against me."
Mr. Heath decried U.S. and British stances as part of a post-Cold War "new imperialism," which he said could cost both countries thousands of lives if they continue their present course.
"We really can't have a war every time we want to get rid of one of these bad people," he said.
In related developments, members of Congress who met with Mr. Bush yesterday shortly after returning from the gulf region said the president told them he would welcome a strong resolution endorsing military action against Iraq. They said Mr. Bush also pledged that Mr. Hussein would "get his ass kicked" if war began.
Representative Anthony C. Beilenson, D-Calif., said he believes Mr. Bush should seek a declaration of war from Congress before ordering an attack, but added, "It's not clear, necessarily, what the response of the Congress would be."