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With three weeks to go before a get-out-or-else deadline on Kuwait takes effect, the United States and Iraq have resumed contacts here after suspension of more than a week, Western diplomats said Wednesday.

The contacts, broken off after a dispute over dates for reciprocal Washington-Baghdad visits, have resumed quietly, said the diplomats, who were not specific as to the content of the talks. There were no official announcements of the talks' resumption from either government, but both sides have expressed eagerness to get proposed negotiations back on track.

But in ominous new signs of war readiness, the Pentagon has begun regular news briefings in Saudi Arabia, Iraq has test-fired another missile and Americans have been urged to leave countries where pro-Iraqi sentiment is high.

"I have not given up hope on the diplomatic process," said Joseph C. Wilson IV, who is in charge of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Contacts resumed Wednesday morning with a telephone call between Wilson and Iraq's deputy foreign minister, Nizer Hamdoon, Washington sources told the Los Angeles Times.

The State Department, however, denied an Israeli newspaper report that Secretary of State James A. Baker III would travel to Baghdad Jan. 9 to meet with President Saddam Hussein.

Iraq has insisted Baker visit Bagh
with Iraq
ulf as deadline nears
dad on Jan. 12, a date the Bush administration rejected as too close to the United Nation's Jan. 15 deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.

On Christmas Day, Iraqi newspapers issued an appeal for peace talks with the United States saying that, despite the approaching deadline, it was not too late.

Twenty days before the U.N.-mandated deadline for Iraq to quit Kuwait or face possible attack, the U.S. Central Command in the Persian Gulf region
held its first regular weekly news briefing in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

The prognosis did not point toward peace.

"We see absolutely no indication that Saddam Hussein intends to withdraw from Kuwait," Air Force Lt. Col. Tom Coury, a member of the command's intelligence staff, told the briefing.

Coury said it is "very realistic" that, if Saddam feels war is inevitable, he may attack Israel to try to sunder the international coalition arrayed against him. Besides the Saudis, key Arab coalition members include Egypt and Syria.

The suggestion of a possible Iraqi pre-emptive strike follows Saddam's pronouncement in a weekend interview that he will attack Israel if war breaks out. Israel has promised massive retaliation.

Coury also said that Iraq, with the most extensive chemical arsenal in the Third World, would likely use such weapons "against attacking coalition forces."

If war breaks out, the briefings will take place daily.

Diplomats in Baghdad think both sides are eager for talks: the Bush administration to satisfy doubts that it has exhausted all peaceful means of freeing Kuwait; Saddam to avert impending war by getting a diplomatic process under way.

Some diplomats see signs of erosion in Baghdad's stand. One noted that the ruling Revolutionary Command Council, in a recent document, said it was Iraq's "belief" Kuwait was part of the country, a slight change from the usual all-out insistence that the oil-rich mini-state was irrevocably annexed territory.

In related developments:

Iraq test-fired another surface-to-surface missile Wednesday within its own borders, aiming it away from multinational forces, U.S. officials said. No further details were disclosed.

Britain's top soldier in the gulf said he fears Saddam could spark a war before the Jan. 15 deadline.

"He will do something to take the initiative and if he decides he is going down the military road, he will try to take a military initiative and that initiative could well come before Jan. 15," Lt. Gen. Sir Peter de la Billiere, commander of the British forces, said.

Iraq protested the seizure of one of its merchant ships in the Arabian Sea Wednesday by U.S. and other forces. Members of the ship's crew and peace activists traveling with them tried to resist the action. No injuries were reported during the predawn fracas aboard the freighter Ibn Khaldoon.

The ship was carrying sugar, rice, cooking oil and other cargo banned under U.N. sanctions.

The State Department asked all non-essential U.S. personnel and dependents to leave Jordan and Sudan before the Jan. 15 deadline. It recommended U.S. citizens defer travel to the two nations, both of which generally support Iraq.

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