WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration held out little optimism yesterday that a possible European Community mission to Baghdad would yield progress toward settling the Persian Gulf conflict, but an official said it could give Saddam Hussein a "fig leaf" to be more flexible on arranging direct talks with the United States.
"We're not . . . very sanguine about that mission," he said, because there is still no sign of Iraqi willingness to withdraw from Kuwait, despite the approaching Jan. 15 deadline.
But if the EC, which has set an emergency meeting for Friday on the gulf crisis, decides to send an emissary, "well and good," the official said.
"If Saddam has some kind of strategy to bend on dates, maybe he would use the EC visit as a fig leaf" to arrange meetings with the United States.
Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jacques Poos, whose country assumes the EC presidency this week, told the British Broadcasting Corp. that he expected that the session would result in his being sent to Baghdad for talks with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz in a bid to prevent war.
This would fill a current diplomatic void created by a stalemate over dates for talks between the United States and Iraq. A proposed visit to Washington Dec. 17 by Mr. Aziz was canceled, and Iraq has proposed only Jan. 12 -- which the United States says is too late -- for Secretary of State James A. Baker III to meet with Mr. Hussein in Baghdad.
Early in December, the EC directed Italy, which then held the presidency, to meet with Mr. Aziz following his meeting in Washington with President Bush.
That meeting never occurred because of the U.S. cancellation, but its purpose was to reinforce the U.S. message that Iraq must withdraw totally from Kuwait, a European diplomat said yesterday.
"I don't think there is one iota of a suggestion that Europeans are moving away from that," he said.
Nevertheless, the White House took the opportunity of news of the EC meeting to reiterate U.S. opposition to any "partial solution."
The State Department said yesterday that there had been no new contacts with Iraq on arranging meeting dates. But an official said Iraqi Ambassador Mohamed Al-Mashat would likely contact the administration following his return from consultations in Baghdad.
Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., said Sunday that Mr. Mashat had indicated that Iraq would be flexible on dates.