WASHINGTON -- A discouraged and pessimistic President Bush described Iraq's response to Secretary of State James A. Baker III's last-ditch bid yesterday for peace in the Persian Gulf as "a total stiff arm, a total rebuff."
The president was particularly incensed that Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz read, then rejected a personal letter from Mr. Bush to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that Mr. Baker had brought with him to the talks.
"This is but one more example that the Iraqi government is not interested in direct communications designed to settle the Persian Gulf crisis," Mr. Bush said at a news conference. "Saddam Hussein continues to reject a diplomatic solution."
Mr. Bush also complained that Mr. Aziz never even mentioned Iraq's takeover of Kuwait in his news conference, focusing instead on the need to broaden the debate to include Israel's 2-decade-old occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"All he has tried to do is obfuscate, to confuse, to make everybody think this had to do with the West Bank," Mr. Bush said. "And it doesn't. It has to do with the aggression against Kuwait, the invasion of Kuwait and the brutalizing of the people in Kuwait."
Mr. Bush said the prospect of avoiding war rested on finding a new approach to convince Mr. Hussein that he faced certain military defeat if he did not withdraw his occupying forces from Kuwait by the United Nations deadline of next Tuesday.
Mr. Bush began another round of telephone consultations with allies in the coalition against Iraq immediately after Mr. Baker's talks with Mr. Aziz ended, partly with the goal of weighing future diplomatic steps.
But the president said he held out little hope of either a diplomatic breakthrough or a sudden change of heart by the Iraqi leader.
"Nothing I saw today -- nothing -- leads me to believe that this man is going to be reasonable," the president said. "I have less of a feeling that he'll come around, but . . . we ought to keep trying right down to the wire."
Mr. Bush said failure of the Geneva talks focused new importance on Congress and its approval of a resolution that lTC would endorse military action against Iraq if the U.N. demands were not met.
Although Mr. Bush's threat of a military offensive against Iraq is controversial in Congress, the president said he was confident that the lawmakers would support him, as he believed the American people did.
"I hope they know that I am as committed to peace as anyone, but I hope they also know that I am firmly determined to see that his aggression not stand," Mr. Bush said, referring to Mr. Hussein. "I think they're backing me in that. . . . I think they know that we have tried the diplomatic track."
Mr. Bush stopped short of promising that a military strike would definitely be launched against Iraq if the U.N. deadline was not met, but he refused to match Mr. Aziz's pledge that Iraq would not strike first.
The president had not been approaching the Baker-Aziz meeting with high expectations, aides said, but the utter lack of progress was a disappointment.
A group of congressmen who were meeting with the president on the gulf resolution when he got the call from Mr. Baker as the talks ended said he returned to their session in a much more subdued frame of mind.
"His mood definitely shifted," said Representative David McCurdy, D-Okla. "He left relatively upbeat and came back very somber."
The president decided yesterday against releasing a copy of his letter to Mr. Hussein, but he denied Mr. Aziz's charge that it was diplomatically offensive.
"The letter was proper, it was direct," said Mr. Bush, who explained that the communication basically set forth the same warnings he had made again and again about what would happen if Iraq did not pull out of Kuwait. "I think it would have been helpful to show him the resolve of the rest of the world," the president said.