WASHINGTON -- The United States and Iraq agreed yesterday to send their foreign ministers on a last-chance peace mission to Geneva for a meeting Wednesday at which the two sides will try to find a way to avoid armed conflict in the Persian Gulf.
President Bush called Iraqi acceptance of his proposal for the session between James A. Baker III and Tariq Aziz "a positive step" and said he hoped that it signaled a "growing awareness" by Iraq of the "seriousness of the situation."
The meeting, the first high-level consultation between the two countries since Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, will come just six days before the deadline by which the United Nations has said that Iraq must withdraw or face eviction by force.
Agreement on the schedule for the meeting was the first major break after months of peace efforts by many parties.
But both sides insisted that they were going into the talks with no promises of flexibility on any of the key issues.
Mr. Aziz said in a statement released by the Iraqi News Agency that he would make the peace mission "out of respect for world public opinion . . . but not out of consideration for the American administration's stand and bad tactics."
He said he would insist upon linking the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait to resolution of the decades-old struggle between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- a stand Mr.Bush rejected again yesterday afternoon.
"There can be no compromises or negotiations" on the U.N. demand for Iraq's complete and unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait, Mr. Bush insisted when he announced the meeting.
The president said the purpose of the session was the same as he had intended when he proposed last month to send Mr. Baker to Baghdad to meet Iraqi President Saddam Hussein: to make clear that the coalition in the gulf will follow through on its threat of military action if the U.N. demands are not met.
Mr. Bush also sought to put firmly to rest speculation that Mr. Baker may ultimately accept Mr. Hussein's offer to receive him in Baghdad next Saturday -- a date previously dismissed by the United States because it was so close to the Jan. 15 deadline as to appear "manipulative."
"We've exhausted that option," the president said of a Baker trip to Baghdad.
Mr. Baker will be carrying with him to Geneva a private letter to Mr. Hussein from Mr. Bush, written in Arabic.
The letter was still being drafted late yesterday, but an administration official predicted that it would be "pretty tough and not allow any face-saving devices," but that it might also offer some slight conciliatory message in a reaffirmation of Mr. Bush's U.N. commitment that once the crisis was settled, the United States would turn its attention to other issues.
Mr. Bush proposed the Baker-Aziz meeting Thursday, saying he wanted to go "an extra mile for peace" after it became clear that Mr. Hussein was not going to receive Mr. Baker in Baghdad within the 15-day period the president had insisted upon.
Iraq's acceptance of the Geneva alternative took the White House by surprise shortly after noon yesterday, when the first word came from news dispatches. The acceptance was formally conveyed to Washington through diplomatic channels shortly thereafter.
Announcement of the Baker-Aziz talks came in the midst of a sudden spurt of last-minute diplomatic initiatives as the deadline looms.
Many of these initiatives are expected to be discussed today by the president when he meets at Camp David with U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar.
"I'm very anxious to see him and compare notes," said Mr. Bush.
The president is also scheduled to discuss the latest developments in the gulf crisis in a radio address taped yesterday for airing after noon today.
Meanwhile, the State Department announced yesterday that Saudi Arabia had agreed not to go ahead with a $12 billion arms package until the gulf crisis is settled.
"We agreed that resolution of the gulf crisis is our first priority and that we need to further assess Saudi arms needs, including in the context of the post-crisis environment," spokesman Richard Boucher said. The United States "will continue to assist Saudi Arabia" in building a strong defense, he added.
This was the second phase of a bigger package that had been split into two phases after creating a storm of controversy on Capitol Hill and among supporters of Israel.
A source close to the Saudis said that the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, agreed it would be best not to confuse the focus during the gulf crisis by raising the arms-sale issue again at this time.
In addition, the United States may decide that it is more cost-effective to leave some of its equipment behind in Saudi Arabia rather than ship it home.