WASHINGTON -- President Bush said yesterday that the Soviet Union's peace proposal "falls well short of what would be required" to end the Persian Gulf war, putting Iraq on notice that it can't use talks with Moscow to forestall a violent ground campaign.
Mr. Bush did not reject the still-secret Soviet terms outright, and Secretary of State James A. Baker III crafted a detailed and thorough U.S. response, which was sent to the Soviets late Monday night.
But the president's comments, delivered while Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz was still en route to Baghdad to deliver the Soviet proposal to President Saddam Hussein, appeared to leave Iraq little chance of avoiding an imminent ground war unless it announced and started to act on a massive withdrawal.
"Let me just reiterate: As far as I am concerned, there are no negotiations," President Bush said at a photo session during a meeting with members of Congress. "The goals have been set out. There will be no concessions."
He said that while he appreciated the Soviets' sharing their secret peace proposal with him, "it falls well short of what would be required."
One key problem, a diplomatic source said, is the Soviets' offer that Iraq will suffer no penalties if it withdraws unconditionally.
The United States intends to have Iraq pay reparations for damage to Kuwait and has held open the possibility of trying Iraqi leaders for war crimes, and the United Nations has held Iraq liable for financial losses caused by its invasion.
While the Soviets insist their plan is in line with U.N. resolutions, "there seems to be an effort to strike some kind of a balance without overtly walking back on the resolutions," the diplomat said.
While not explicitly flouting formally stated allied policy, the Soviet proposal could undermine the coalition's "implied objectives," he said.
Another problem is the apparent Soviet wish to allow the Iraqis an honorable retreat by implying that its withdrawal would open the way to the solution of other Mideast problems.
The United States is adamant that Mr. Hussein not appear to have achieved something through aggression and that he not be allowed to claim victory in any sort of believable way, an administration official said.
The Soviets also are reported to be willing to lift economic sanctions against Iraq if it withdraws. Mr. Baker said Sunday that at least an arms embargo probably would be maintained if Mr. Hussein remained in power.
Amid various reports that an Iraqi withdrawal could be near, XTC Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander A. Bessmertnykh warned last night that a ground war "would profoundly disturb the peace process."
Earlier, Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, Kamal Kharrazi, said in a CNN interview that Iraq could announce its intention to withdraw "in the next several hours."
Yevgeny M. Primakov, the Soviet president's special Middle East envoy who sat in on Monday's Kremlin meeting with Mr. Aziz, said on Soviet television that "Iraq is now closer to a decision to withdraw its troops from Kuwait than ever before."
The Soviet ambassador to the United Nations, Yuli P. Vorontsov, said that Mr. Aziz would return to Moscow today with a response to the plan. "We are looking forward, I would say, for the positive reply of the Iraqi government," he said.
While saying the Soviet terms as they now stand were unacceptable, the Bush administration refrained from criticizing Soviet efforts to end the war. Spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said, "Essentially, it could be helpful."
Administration officials received details of the Soviet proposal Monday afternoon. Mr. Baker was first telephoned at home by Mr. Bessmertnykh, who said he didn't want to discuss it over an open line. Then, after getting "a fuller brief" later that afternoon, Mr. Baker met with President Bush and the president's other top advisers at the White House.
Mr. Baker returned to the State Department at 7:20 p.m. and worked there and later at home on what a senior official called a "very detailed and thorough" response.
This was later forwarded to Moscow by the Soviet Embassy.
Officials refused to say whether the U.S. response suggested ways in which the Soviet proposal could be made acceptable to the United States, but the senior official noted, "We've been working together with them all along."