WASHINGTON — The White House refused today to rule out direct talks with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, even though the latest U.S. offer had called for talks between Washington and Baghdad by Thursday.
President Bush, encountering Iraqi silence on talks with the United States, may send Secretary of State James A. Baker III to meet with allied leaders in the Persian Gulf, spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said.
Discussing sending Baker on a diplomatic mission to the region, Fitzwater said: "That matter is under consideration. The question is, would it be helpful for him to go to the Middle East to meet with our coalition partners, and that is the issue that we're now considering.
"The question of meeting with Saddam or going to Baghdad is something that we need to hear from them about," Fitzwater said.
Once a Jan. 15 U.N. deadline for the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait was set, Bush had offered to send Baker to Baghdad and to meet in Washington with Iraq's foreign minister, Tarik Aziz.
"The President proposed . . . a number of dates when we could work out those meetings," Fitzwater said. "We received no response, and as of yesterday, I believe, Saddam gave no indication that he was interested."
The United States had offered 15 dates for a meeting with Hussein, the last one being Thursday. Baghdad offered to meet with Baker on Jan. 12, just days before the deadline--a timetable Washington called unacceptable.
Asked about reports that both sides have become more flexible in establishing direct talks, Fitzwater said: "The speculation has gotten way ahead of the facts.
"There has been no change in our position," Fitzwater said.
"Everything we hear from Saddam Hussein is that he has no intention of leaving Kuwait. We haven't heard of any change."
In Saudi Arabia today, the U.S. military command said U.S. troop strength in the region has reached about 325,000. It is expected to swell by another 100,000, bringing the multinational force to about 600,000 troops. Iraqi forces in the theater now total about 510,000, the U.S. military said.