WASHINGTON -- The White House, strenuously knocking down reports of a softened U.S. policy toward Iraq, said yesterday that Saddam Hussein would have to undertake a "massive withdrawal" of his forces from Kuwait before the United States would halt the Persian Gulf war.
A mere verbal or written commitment by Iraq to withdraw would not be sufficient, spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said.
"That's not our policy. Our policy is massive withdrawal, and that's what this . . . statement means," Mr. Fitzwater said.
His words appeared to assign the toughest possible meaning to a statement issued late Tuesday by Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander A. Bessmertnykh.
The statement said that "a cessation of hostilities would be possible if Iraq would make an unequivocal commitment to withdraw from Kuwait." Such a commitment, it said, "must be backed up by immediate, concrete steps leading to full compliance with the [U.N.] Security Council resolutions."
Tuesday's statement caught the White House off guard just as President Bush was preparing to deliver his State of the Union address. Neither Mr. Bush nor his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, had read it before it was issued, the White House said.
Initiated by the Soviets, the statement had been intended to serve both U.S. and Soviet interests.
From the U.S. standpoint, it underscored Soviet commitment to see the United Nations resolutions implemented and solidarity with U.S. policy, despite recent signs that the Soviets were drifting away.
For the Soviets, it put the United States on record again as not seeking destruction of Iraq or seeking an erosion of its territorial integrity, and as striving to avoid civilian casualties.
It also made the Soviets a full partner with the United States in postwar efforts to improve regional security and tackle the Arab-Israeli peace process.
The joint policy was in the works before Mr. Baker and Mr. Bessmertnykh sat down together Tuesday for their third meeting in four days, but it was so tightly held that even Margaret D. Tutwiler, the State Department spokeswoman and a trusted Baker aide for a decade, did not know to expect it.
She ascribed lack of advance press notification yesterday to sloppy staff work.
But all involved clearly underestimated its impact. While Mr. Baker doesn't routinely clear his statements with the White House, coordination is considered essential on major policy pronouncements.
Far from being a reiteration of U.S. policy, as officials repeatedly described it yesterday, the statement was widely seen as backing away from U.S. determination not to quit fighting until all U.N. resolutions had been fulfilled, including total Iraqi removal from Kuwait.
There were reports of friction afterward between President Bush and Secretary Baker, but Miss Tutwiler dismissed those as "absolutely absurd and silly."
Like the White House, close U.S. allies were also caught by surprise, requiring damage control yesterday.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir complained he had not been consulted about "a political act that involves us, our fate, our future." But his ambassador to Washington, Zalman Shoval, said after meeting with Mr. Baker yesterday that he had been reassured the statement represented no policy change.
Britain's ambassador, whose country also was not consulted, said the statement was nothing new.
The U.S.-Soviet relationship, which had warmed steadily over the last several years, has been strained by Moscow's crackdown in the Baltic republics and by the sudden resignation of Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze.
Only in the most recent set of meetings, officials said yesterday, did the United States get a commitment from the Soviets to abide by many of the understandings previously reached by Mr. Baker and Mr. Shevardnadze on a proposed treaty to cut long-range nuclear weapons.