President Bush is prepared to call off planned talks with Iraq on the Persian Gulf crisis because the two countries have been unable to agree on meeting dates, two senators said today.
The two governments have been unable to agree on a date for Secretary of State James A. Baker III to visit Baghdad to talk to Iraq's President Saddam Hussein and for Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz to meet with Bush in Washington. The administration wants the Aziz meeting next week.
"The president -- as I gather his mood today -- is prepared to have no meetings rather than to see a lot of shoving around . . . if we have no meetings so be it," said Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., after meeting with Bush this morning.
Lugar is a member of the Committee for Peace and Security in the Gulf, a bipartisan group formed to support the president's gulf policy, which met with Bush this morning.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., another member of the group, told reporters: "The president feels he has taken the necessary steps that encourages dialogue, and if they fail to respond in a reasonable and mature fashion, then he's made his best effort and that's it."
Lugar said Bush "is not about to give on a date in Baghdad" that would have Baker meeting with Saddam close to the Jan. 15 U.N. deadline for Iraq to withdraw its occupying troops from Kuwait.
Iraq has said Aziz could come to the United States on Monday and that Baker would be received in Baghdad on Jan. 12.
The United States wants Baker to make his trip sometime between Dec. 20 and Jan. 3.
"The president very much wants the meetings . . . but it depends on the circumstances," McCain said. "And for it to be manipulated up to the day before the United Nations Security Council resolution is supposed to take effect is probably not an acceptable solution."
The State Department continues to hold to its tough position on the matter but refused to say what would happen if agreement on a date for Baker's trip to Baghdad was still unsettled on Jan 12.
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, responding to Democratic calls to give economic sanctions against Iraq more time, said today, "Patience is not producing results."
"Those who would have us rely indefinitely on economic sanctions alone need to face the possibility that they will fail to achieve our aims," Cheney told the House Armed Services Committee.
The testimony from the Pentagon chief and Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, comes amid the urgings of several Democrats for a go-slow approach in the gulf rather than the immediate use of military force.
But Cheney told the panel that if the economic attempts and diplomatic efforts to solve the crisis fail, the United States must have the option of using force to oust Iraq from the oil-rich emirate of Kuwait.
Rep. Les Aspin, D-Wis., chairman of the Armed Services panel and a supporter of Bush's policy, opened the hearing stressing the need for Cheney and Powell to answer a key question.
"We want to explore with our witnesses today whether we've created a use-it-or-lose-it force in the Persian Gulf that will prematurely bring us to the question of peace or war," Aspin said.
Bush adamantly declared Thursday he would offer Saddam no reward for letting hostages go. "Hell, no. Not one thing," he said.
At a White House ceremony welcoming seven of the Americans freed from Iraq and Kuwait, Bush added: "You don't reward a kidnapper. You don't reward somebody that has done something that he shouldn't have done in the first place." Asked whether he would be able to defuse the tension over the Persian Gulf, he replied, "One way or another we will."
During his meeting with the freed hostages, Bush said, "I want you to just let your hair down. If we're screwing something up, I want you to tell me," he told his visitors as he sat with them in the White House Cabinet Room.
But what he heard in the private meeting was an endorsement of his policies and, if anything, encouragement to make sure that Saddam is contained, according to several hostages who spoke to reporters afterward.
The president "assured us the situation will be taken care of," said Antonio Mireles, a civil engineer from Annandale, Va., who was employed by the Kuwaiti government. He was given refuge in the U.S. Embassy compound.
In other developments:
The last U.S.-charted evacuation flight landed in Frankfurt, Germany -- carrying U.S. Ambassador Nathaniel Howell and all other diplomats from the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait -- Four of them had been held as "human shields" at Iraqi military sites, two had been in hiding in Kuwait, and one had taken refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait City.
Howell, on his arrival in Germany, told reporters: "This morning I closed the embassy.," But he then caught himself, saying, "I did not close the embassy, but I vacated it. The flag flies."
He refused to comment on his lengthy ordeal until he had briefed State Department officials.
An ABC/Wall Street Journal poll showed Thursday that 58 percent of Americans favor a draft in case of war and 71 percent believe both men and women should be called up.
A Los Angeles Times poll showed that 43 percent support continued enforcement of the economic embargo against Iraq and the military buildup in Saudi Arabia, while 37 percent favor invading Iraq if it does not withdraw from Kuwait by the U.N. deadline of Jan. 15.
And 61 percent approved of Bush's handling of the crisis, while 33 percent disapproved. that represented a sizable improvement over November, when public approval of Bush's performance in the showdown with Iraq sagged to just 54 percent, with 40 percent disapproving.
An Arab effort to draw Iraq further from the brink stumbled today as Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid was forced to cancel a mediation visit to Saudi Arabia.
Bendjedid visited Baghdad on Thursday and planned to travel to Riyadh with a message from Saddam for Saudi King Fahd. But the Saudis told him not to bother as long as Iraq remained in Kuwait, diplomats in the region said.