President Bush, suddenly faced with increasing bipartisan opposition to his plan for an early military strike against Iraq, has scheduled a meeting with top congressional leaders of both parties next week to discuss his Persian Gulf policy.
The move Friday came as Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., and Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, criticized Bush's plan, reported by the Los Angeles Times on Thursday, to order an early attack if Iraq fails to abide by the Jan. 15 deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.
It was not immediately clear whether Bush's tough new posture would prompt any serious move in Congress to force the president's hand -- either by forbidding the use of military force or by specifically ordering an attack. Both houses will be in session from Thursday, the date of the meeting, through Jan. 15.
But it was plain that top congressional leaders were extremely anxious about the reports of Bush's decision to move quickly once the U.N. deadline had passed.
Declaring that there is "still a lot of concern in the country about getting into a shooting war," Dole said the United States "should not be doing anything over there until we've pursued every other possibility" -- including high-level talks between the two countries.
And Mitchell, who has repeatedly insisted that the U.S. Constitution requires the president to seek congressional approval before launching any offensive military action, said other senators also were apprehensive.
"I detect widespread and deep unease among members of the Senate about the manner in which the president appears so insistent and determined to use force as a first resort rather than a last resort," he said.
While the White House did not formally announce the Thursday leadership meeting, Dole disclosed in an interview that Bush's national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, had told him that the president planned to schedule two meetings with congressional leaders for that date.
Bush plans to meet first with Mitchell, Dole, House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., and House Minority Leader Bob Michel, R-Ill., and then hold a second session to include about 20 others, among them the chairmen of the Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees.
Dole said he would still like to see the United States try to arrange for Baker to travel to Baghdad, Iraq, to meet with Saddam Hussein, and for Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz to come to Washington and meet with Bush before the Jan. 15 deadline.
So far, the United States and Iraq have been unable to agree on dates for reciprocal talks on the crisis.
Dole said he feels so strongly about the issue that he telephoned Iraq's ambassador to the United States, Mohammed Mashat, in Baghdad to urge that the Iraqis try to agree on a date before Congress returns to Washington on Wednesday.
"I expressed my feeling that this is serious business, and the ambassador agreed it is serious business," Dole said. "He's coming back on New Year's Day and I told him I would be available for further discussions."
"I can't believe that they can't agree on a date," Dole said.
Dole said that while Bush still enjoys "pretty strong support" among the American public, "you've got to commit the nation before you commit the troops, and my gut tells me the nation isn't there yet.
"I can't think that the American people believe we've checked out every avenue short of war," he said.
"There's still some confusion out there about whether we're ready and what our real goals are and whether it is worth it -- whether our goals is oil or putting the emir (of Kuwait) back on the throne."
Several top U.S. military officials have said the United States would not be fully prepared to launch a military offensive until about mid-February, when all the troops and equipment assigned to the gulf region have been deployed.
But administration officials, and the president himself, have said they believe that enough U.S. forces would be in place immediately after the Jan. 15 deadline to launch an attack if necessary.
Both Dole and Mitchell emphasized that they had supported -- and continued to support -- Bush's basic policy of imposing economic sanctions against Iraq and eventually resorting to force if it becomes necessary to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait.
In other developments:
Asian military analysts said thousands of Iraqis are being trained to conduct attacks against U.S.-led forces if war breaks out, adding that some were prepared for possible suicide missions.
The analysts, speaking in Baghdad on condition of anonymity, said Iraq has been training army commandos and volunteers from the Popular Army for special operations against the 400,000-strong allied forces in Saudi Arabia.
Iraqi opposition groups said they had joined forces to topple Saddam and save Iraq from war.
The newly formed Iraqi National Joint Action Committee, introducing itself at a Beirut, Lebanon, news conference, is composed of pro-Iranian Muslim fundamentalists, Syrian-backed Muslim groups, communists, socialists, dissident members of Iraq's Baath party, Arab nationalists and Kurds.
The committee denounced the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, calling for pressure on Saddam to avoid war in the gulf by withdrawing from the emirate it occupied Aug. 2. The groups also objected to the presence of U.S. and other foreign troops in the region.
Iraq test-fired another Soviet-made Scud ballistic missile, prompting U.S. military commanders to send their troops to battle stations for 1 1/2 hours. It was the third such incident this past month.
Iraqi media reported Friday that paramilitary militias in the Kurdish region have been reactivated to shore up the country's northern border with Turkey.
Great Britain ordered 390 medical reservists to active duty for deployment to the gulf -- its first mandatory mobilization of reserve forces in 25 years.