GENEVA -- On the eve of talks with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, Secretary of State James A. Baker III opened the door yesterday to further diplomatic efforts to prevent war with Iraq.
"I've said that I think that this is the last best chance for a peaceful, political solution, but of course, we would all prefer a peaceful, political solution, and if one could occur before midnight on the 15th of January, we would be delighted," Mr. Baker said in Bonn.
Asked later in Milan, Italy, about a visit by the French foreign minister to Baghdad, Iraq, Mr. Baker said, "We have said for a long time that we welcome any and all efforts to resolve this matter peacefully and politically, provided that there is no mixing of the message and provided that we stay unified to the same degree and extent as we have over the last five months."
Asked what would happen diplomatically after today's session, he replied: "Stay tuned," the words he usually uses when he doesn't want to reveal his plans.
Mr. Baker and Mr. Aziz, both unyielding in their positions, arrived in Geneva last night for the only high-level talks now scheduled before the U.N. deadline expires next Tuesday.
The talks are due to start at 11 a.m. Geneva time (5 a.m. EST) at the Intercontinental Hotel.
The United States has been trying strenuously to dampen European diplomatic efforts, fearing that these would undercut the clear U.S. message that Iraq faces devastation if it fails to withdraw from Kuwait by the United Nations deadline.
Mr. Baker opposed a French move to offer an international Middle East Peace conference if Iraq intended to withdraw from Kuwait, arguing that this would reward aggression.
But yesterday, after a round of meetings with top officials of France, Germany and Italy, he appeared resigned to the fact that French diplomatic efforts will continue.
Mr. Baker said that talks in Baghdad by Michel Vauzelle, a confidant of President Francois Mitterrand's, had failed to produce results. But he also noted Mr. Mitterrand had scheduled a news conference for today.
Neither Mr. Baker nor Mr. Aziz, who arrived just minutes behind him here last night, offered any sign that today's talks would bridge the huge gulf between the two sides, although Mr. Aziz has hinted that a surprise could be in store.
"I would like to say I have come in good faith," he told reporters at the airport. "I am open-minded, and I am ready to conduct positive, constructive talks with Secretary Baker if he chose the same intention."
Saying recent U.S. rhetoric would fail to yield positive results, Mr. Aziz said, "Iraq does not yield to pressure. But Iraq is open to genuine exchange of views about the situation in the whole region.
"If there is a genuine, sincere, serious intention to make peace in the whole region of the Middle East, we are ready to reciprocate." But if the United States persists in repeating "the same kind of talk . . . then we are going to give the proper answer," Mr. Aziz said.
If repeated statements by President Bush and Mr. Baker are an accurate reflection, the Iraqis can expect no give in the U.S. position.
Mr. Baker will seek to persuade Mr. Aziz and through him, Saddam Hussein, that Mr. Bush is determined to go to war if the U.N. resolutions are not fulfilled.
Mr. Hussein, meanwhile, was telling his military chiefs that not only would Iraq win a war but it would achieve all its objectives "in a single battle."
Mr. Baker spent the final two days before today's meeting reaffirming U.S. determination to drive Iraq from Kuwait and seeking to lay a political foundation of equal resolve among U.S. allies.
"I think there is absolutely total and complete agreement between France and the United States with respect to the
necessity for full implementation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions on or before the 15th of January. There is indeed agreement between us that the chance for peace is in the hands of Saddam Hussein," Mr. Baker said in Paris, where he met for two hours with Mr. Mitterrand and Foreign Minister Roland Dumas.
"Both the U.S. and France agreed there should not be negotiations" or any suggestion of watering down the U.N. resolutions, Mr. Baker said.
His statements glossed over France's willingness to promise an early international peace conference on the Middle East and pursue its own peace feelers with Iraq in a bid to avoid war.
Mr. Dumas acknowledged that the United States felt "such a position could appear to be a concession made to Saddam Hussein and for that reason it could confuse the message that has been sent to him."
As a result of his talks with Italian Foreign Minister Gianni di Michelis, there was no disunity now, Mr. Baker said. "I want you all to understand that. The United States and Italy remain in exactly the same position with respect to this crisis."