RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Secretary of State James A. Baker III arrived in the Persian Gulf yesterday and discussed the timing and costs of war with coalition partners after his impasse the day before with Iraq's foreign minister.
With the United Nations deadline now just days away, a top U.S. official hinted that war could be averted if Iraq started actively pulling its troops out of Kuwait by Jan. 15, but had not totally withdrawn.
Meanwhile, a senior U.S. administration official said that
outgoing Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze would have "further communications" with the Iraqi government to say that "time is running on."
Mr. Baker and other senior officials held a series of meetings last night with King Fahd, Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal and other top Saudi officials on a tour to nail down final strategy with coalition partners.
A senior official aboard the secretary's plane said that it was important that Mr. Baker get for President Bush the coalition partners' views on timing of military action. A senior aide to the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff joined Mr. Baker's private talks with King Fahd.
The official also said, "This coalition takes constant care and feeding . . . there are questions that come up with respect to what happens in the event of alternative scenarios, what happens with respect to the commitment of forces under certain conditions, what happens vis-a-vis responsibility-sharing -- all of these things are matters that have to be discussed with our various coalition partners."
A top Saudi official told the secretary during one of the sessions here, "Saddam Hussein must bow to reality or enter the world of the unknown," a U.S. official recounted.
King Fahd pledged to be forthcoming about sharing the costs of the U.S. troop buildup and the substantial added sums needed should war break out, U.S. and Saudi officials said.
The hint of U.S. flexibility on total Iraqi withdrawal by Jan. 15 followed suggestions by various Europeans, particularly the French, that Iraq be allowed a staged pullout, perhaps in conjunction with the establishment of a U.N. peacekeeping force.
Europeans argue that Iraq could not now fully comply with U.N. resolutions by that date.
Publicly, the United States has rejected any backing away from the U.N. resolutions.
But the senior official who briefed reporters on Mr. Baker's plane yesterday acknowledged that the military calculation could be affected if Iraq started to pull out.
"The deadline is real. That's our view, and I think it's the view of everybody else . . . midnight the 15th is a very important time," the official said, but added: "We'll have to see what the situation is at that time. I can't speculate on that in advance. Suppose he is actively moving out? I can't answer those kinds of questions."
In the aftermath of Wednesday's meeting with Mr. Aziz, the same official said that the session may not have been a total failure in the sense that the Iraqi got a clearer impression of U.S. resolve to go to war. Mr. Aziz had an "extraordinarily bad brief" in terms of instructions from Saddam Hussein, the official said.
"My hope is that while he came to this meeting without flexibility and without latitude, that he came for the purpose of assessing the seriousness of our resolve. And I hope . . . that he will take the message back."