WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State James A. Baker III, before leaving yesterday on a trip that will include direct talks with Iraq's foreign minister in Geneva, ruled out any high-level diplomatic meetings in Baghdad to resolve the Persian Gulf crisis.
But in later remarks he left open the possibility of holding a meeting with Iraq's President Saddam Hussein somewhere outside Iraq.
With nine days left before the United Nations' Jan. 15 deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait or face eviction by force, Mr. Baker stated bluntly in a television interview that the Bush administration was "closing the door" to any additional talks with Mr. Hussein or other top Iraqi officials in Baghdad.
[Later, aboard a flight to London, Mr. Baker declared again that he would not meet with Mr. Hussein in Baghdad, but he left open the possibility that he might be willing to meet Mr. Hussein in a third country, according to the New York Times.
["The president said there will be no meeting in Baghdad," Mr. Baker said. "And I am going to leave it right there where the president put it." While Mr. Baker left the third-country option open, he stressed that the United States would not allow Mr. Hussein to "manipulate the deadline" for withdrawing from Kuwait.]
Before boarding the plane en route to London and later Paris on the way to a session Wednesday in Geneva with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, Mr. Baker expressed strong concern on the ABC program "This Week" that Iraq would propose a later meeting between Mr. Baker and Mr. Hussein in Baghdad.
"This Jan. 15 deadline is real," Mr. Baker stated. "We've been dealing with this matter for over five months, so it is not a case of not having been patient."
Mr. Baker interpreted Mr. Hussein's strong speech yesterday denouncing the "tyranny represented by the United States" as a further sign that he fails to understand that "the deadline is real."
Brent Scowcroft, President Bush's national security adviser, also seemed to try yesterday to dampen hopes that Wednesday's meeting would lead to a breakthrough in the crisis.
"I don't believe it will change very much," he said on Cable News Network. "I don't see any indications that Saddam Hussein is getting the message."
[On his return last night from a weekend at his Camp David retreat, President Bush called a meeting of his top advisers to review the escalating crisis, according to Cox News Service. The service said one option being considered was a last-ditch personal appeal to Mr. Hussein in Baghdad by U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, who met with Mr. Bush for three hours at Camp David on Saturday.]
Iraq appeared to be actively considering asking Mr. Baker at Wednesday's meeting to come to Baghdad.
The Iraqi ambassador to the United States, Mohamed Sadiq al-Mashat, said on the NBC program "Meet the Press" that he thought an invitation to Mr. Baker would be extended by Mr. Aziz.
Some impetus for Mr. Baker to go to Baghdad came yesterday from Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, who discounted on the CBS program "Face the Nation" the administration's seemingly adamant stand against further high-level talks.
"What's ruled out today can be ruled in tomorrow," said Mr. Mitchell, who opposes using force to eject Iraq from Kuwait at this stage. "There was a time when the president ruled out any discussions with Iraq, and now of course we've offered them two different sets of meetings."
Western diplomats in Baghdad over recent days have suggested that little will come of the Geneva talks and that chances for a peaceful settlement may rest on a meeting between Mr. Baker and President Hussein.
President Bush proposed the meeting in Geneva after he withdrew an original offer for Mr. Aziz to come to Washington and Mr. Baker to go to Baghdad. That proposal was pulled back when the Iraqis agreed to receive Mr. Baker only on Jan. 12 --
three days before the U.N. deadline for Iraqi troops to be out of Kuwait.
Meanwhile, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., announced that the House would open debate later this week on legislation concerning war in the Middle East. The Senate is to start debate as early as Thursday.
Mr. Foley, who also opposes using force at this point, predicted on the "This Week" program that legislation patterned after the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force would probably clear the House by a narrow vote.
The House will act on a resolution before the Jan. 15 deadline, Mr. Foley said, even though he said there was no certainty that President Bush would authorize military action when the deadline expires.
Mr. Mitchell said the Senate would also vote before the deadline.
Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., predicted on "This Week" that if such a vote came before the Senate, its backers probably would have just enough votes to avoid a filibuster. He said about 60 senators would vote for a resolution authorizing the use of force.