WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State James A. Baker III said yesterday that Middle East extremists will try to torpedo chances of a late October peace conference as the time for it draws near.
"As we get closer and closer to the end of October, I think you will see a tendency on the part of rejectionists or extremists across the region to take actions designed to disrupt the possibilities of peace."
Mr. Baker's comments came when he was asked whether Jewish settlers, who tried Wednesday to take over eight dwellings in mostly Arab East Jerusalem, aimed to sabotage his efforts.
He said he agreed with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who was quoted as having called the settlers "mistaken."
Mr. Baker said his warning did not specifically refer to the latest settlers' incident.
"Many of these things have to do with prospects of terrorism, and they come from highly classified information," he said.
Other U.S. officials say that Arab rejectionist groups, such as Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad or Iranian-backed terror organizations might stage actions aimed at torpedoing a peace conference.
For zealous Israelis, the aim would be to "electrify" Palestinians living in the occupied territories, one official said. For Arab rejectionists, it would be to trigger a strong reaction from Israel.
State Department spokeswoman Margaret D. Tutwiler vowed earlier: "The actions of extremists will not be rewarded. They will not stop a process that has come closer than ever before to the just, lasting and comprehensive peace which we and our friends in the region have sought for so long and which the region deserves."
The threatened disruptions come amid signs of increasing nervousness even among those who have already agreed in principle to the conference, which the United States and Soviet Union hope to sponsor late this month, probably in Europe.
Mr. Baker, who leaves tomorrow for Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Israel in a bid to complete arrangements so that invitations can be sent, said: "We've got to see some decisions taken across the board, across the region."
As he entered a meeting at the State Department with four prominent Palestinians, Mr. Baker said that the composition of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation "is the major issue that remains to be resolved."
The United States wants the Palestinians from the occupied territories to assume a higher-profile role in negotiating with Jordan and not leave that role to the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The Palestinians were led by Faisal Husseini and Hanan Ashrawi, who have negotiated repeatedly with Mr. Baker and who are reported to have persuaded the PLO to accept the idea of a conference.
They were joined by Dr. Zakariah Al-Agha, a leader in Israeli-occupied Gaza, and Sari Nusseibah, an academic.
Mr. Husseini said that the group brought "some answers" for Mr. Baker. But Mrs. Ashrawi said that they still wanted to discuss changes in a letter of assurance on the U.S. role in the talks. The United States has been working on such letters with all the participants.
Afterward, Mrs. Ashrawi said, "I don't think we have reached the ideal level of assurances that are needed, but we have made some progress, and I think there is more possible. That's why we are here."