WASHINGTON -- President Bush, making "one last attempt to go the extra mile for peace," offered yesterday to have Secretary of State James A. Baker III meet in Geneva next week with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz.
The offer followed Iraqi rejection of the president's previous offer to send Mr. Baker to meet directly with President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad any time between Dec. 20 and yesterday.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, while calling the previous offer "at an end," refused to rule out the possibility that Mr. Baker might go to Baghdad after meeting with Mr. Aziz. But he said, "Let's see how this one plays itself out." Another official said that a Baghdad trip was "not in the calculation right now."
Iraq had not responded to Mr. Bush's offer by yesterday evening. But U.S. Charge d'Affaires Joe Wilson, who relayed the proposal to an Iraqi foreign official in Baghdad, said that "the atmosphere of the meeting was actually very good," the Reuters news agency reported.
The initiative, which caused oil prices to plunge on traders' suspicions of peace, keeps the United States in the driver's seat diplomatically amid last-minute efforts among European and Arab leaders to avert war as the deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait approaches.
But the "major concern" driving it was that "we were drifting toward the Jan. 15 deadline, while there was a perception among some Americans and others that the U.S. was not being flexible enough to facilitate a meeting between the U.S. and Iraq," an administration official said.
Members of Congress, including Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, have called on Mr. Bush to make more strenuous diplomatic efforts before resorting to war.
Mr. Baker leaves Sunday for European capitals and the Persian Gulf for a series of last-minute consultations with leaders of major partners in the anti-Iraq coalition to make sure "the i's are dotted and the t's crossed" in advance of the deadline, an official said.
Mr. Baker, interviewed last night on ABC-TV's "Prime Time," said that if the meeting took place with Mr. Aziz, he would deliver a personal message from Mr. Bush to Mr. Hussein that Mr. Bush was committed to fulfilling all U.N. resolutions on the gulf crisis.
He said Mr. Hussein apparently still believed that the United States was bluffing.
When Mr. Aziz "begins to go into his litany of why they did what they did," Mr. Baker said, he will interject: "That's not the issue before us."
He said that yesterday's offer "will be the last such proposal we will make." He is not as optimistic now about a peaceful solution as he was before Christmas, Mr. Baker said.
The administration was unbending yesterday in its determination to oust Iraq from Kuwait by force if Iraq fails to withdraw by the deadline.
"The dark days of Iraq's cruel occupation are numbered," Mr. Baker said yesterday at a swearing-in ceremony for Edward Gnehm, the new U.S. ambassador to Kuwait. Mr. Gnehm won't take up residence there until after the Kuwaiti government is restored. Mr. Gnehm replaces Nathaniel Howell, who was recently evacuated from the embassy and was due for reassignment.
Mr. Fitzwater said in a statement that the president's offer "is being made subject to the same conditions as the president's previous attempt: no negotiations, no compromises, no attempts at face-saving, and no rewards for aggression. . . . What there will be is, simply and importantly, an opportunity to resolve this crisis peacefully."
A day after the U.N. Security Council authorized the United States and its allies to go to war with Iraq if it did not withdraw by Jan. 15, Mr. Bush proposed an exchange of visits in which he would meet with Mr. Aziz and Mr. Baker would meet with Mr. Hussein.
The Baghdad mission, he said, would be a way of directly getting the message to Mr. Hussein -- widely believed to be insulated and surrounded by aides fearful of delivering bad news -- that he had to withdraw totally from Kuwait or face U.S. and allied forces.
Mr. Bush gave Dec. 15 to Jan. 15 as the period for the Baker trip. But after Iraq responded by inviting Mr. Baker for Jan. 12, the White House rejected that date as too close to the deadline and countered that the visit should occur by Jan. 3.
The new offer of a Baker-Aziz meeting could put it just three days short of the date the White House previously rejected.
"It's a different proposal," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. Jan. 12 was still ruled out, he said.