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Secretary of State James A. Baker III said today Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's call for the release of all foreign hostages did not lessen U.S. determination that Baghdad pull occupation troops out of Kuwait.

Appearing for a second day of congressional testimony, Baker pressed ahead with his efforts to win congressional support for using force against Iraqi forces if Iraq does not leave Kuwait soon.

Baker said Saddam's announcement that he wanted to send all foreigners home was a "welcome and significant development" although he added that the United States had received no official confirmation from Baghdad.

"I think that this is a sign that our strategy of diplomatic and military pressure is working. It seems to me no coincidence that this announcement comes just one week after the international community has authorized the use of force," Baker told the House Foreign Relations Committee.

But Baker said releasing the hostages was not enough.

"It does not lessen, nor should it lessen, our determination that Iraq's aggression against Kuwait must be reversed by full implementation of all of the Security Council resolutions," Baker said.

Baker said anew that Bush hopes for a peaceful solution and has not decided whether to use force immediately should Saddam ignore a United Nations resolution demanding that Iraq withdraw from Kuwait by Jan. 15.

But he gave yet another pessimistic account on the impact sanctions have had against Iraq over the past four months and said waiting too long was not in the United States interest.

"At some point delay carries a very high price for all of us," said Baker, including higher casualties among the U.S.-led forces in the event of war should Iraq be given much more time to fortify its positions in Kuwait.

"He has to be stopped, peacefully if possible, but if necessary by force," Baker said. "A willingness to use force against Iraq remains essential."

Baker followed Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a week-long administration effort to silence congressional critics of Bush's gulf policy.

"Let the United States speak with one voice," Baker said during one of several animated exchanges with lawmakers.

Baker won support from one liberal Democrat on the panel, Rep. Stephen Solarz of New York, who said "the sanctions offer us little hope" of convincing Saddam to withdraw his army from Kuwait.

Solarz said it must be made clear that "unless he withdraws a war will be inevitable and unless he withdraws he and his military machine will be destroyed."

Iraq on Wednesday accepted Bush's offer to send Baker to Baghdad for a face-to-face meeting with Saddam. But Baker today said the administration would not bend to Iraqi demands that the talks include discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict and other Mideast crises.

"I will not be negotiating the Palestinian question or the civil war in Lebanon," Baker said.

Sadiq al-Mashat, the Iraqi ambassador, told reporters Wednesday that the Palestinians' dispute with Israel is the "backbone" of Iraqi policy.

"It has to be addressed some way or another," he said. "Let us negotiate and arrive at a peaceful settlement which would be in the interest of everybody in the region."

Baker is to go to Baghdad after Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi foreign minister, comes to Washington for talks with Bush.

Baker's testimony today mirrored the account he delivered across the Capitol a day earlier to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

If Baker made any converts among skeptical Democrats on the Senate panel, they were not evident.

Committee Chairman Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., said sanctions have not been given adequate time to work. His mail is running "eight or nine to one to slow down" the rush toward military action, Pell said. "There is little evidence of . . . impatience or of a popular clamoring for war."

And Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., said: "This is a time for the qualities of the long-distance runner: perseverance, stamina, determination. Lashing out may be less courageous than to stick to the course, particularly when you're talking about a significant loss of life."

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