WASHINGTON — Iraq accepted President Bush's terms Thursday for a meeting of military commanders to discuss a full cease-fire, leading Administration officials to hope for a quick release of U.S. prisoners of war and a formal end to the Persian Gulf War.
Release of the POWs is "foremost in my heart," Bush said in announcing the Iraqi decision. "We expect a prompt repatriation of them."
Although Iraq has not yet made any commitments on prisoners, the quick response to the U.S. terms for a meeting is a positive sign, a senior White House official said. "If they were choosing not to deal with what we had indicated was very important to us, they wouldn't have responded that quickly," the official said.
Saddam Hussein's forces are known to have captured at least 13 allied POWs, but many more could be in Iraqi hands. The Pentagon lists 45 Americans as missing in action in the war.
Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, Abdul Amir Anbari, formally notified the Security Council that his country will comply with all 12 U.N. resolutions directed against it. He told reporters that "as far as the Geneva Convention regarding prisoners of war, Iraq will comply with that."
The Iraqi diplomat spoke after a private meeting with U.S. Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering. It was the second meeting between the two men in 24 hours.
Although Bush's order directing allied troops to stop shooting ended most of the fighting, a true cease-fire will not take place until commanders from both sides can meet to arrange disengagement of the armies, exchange of prisoners and related issues.
In Wednesday night's announcement, Bush asked that the meeting take place within 48 hours, and officials said they believe the talks could take place as early as today.
U.S. officials, meanwhile, prepared a new resolution for the U.N. Security Council designed to create a framework for achieving what State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler called "the political considerations that have to be addressed for the termination of the war."
The resolution, likely to be presented today, could relax some economic sanctions against Iraq, particularly those limiting imports of food and medicine, while setting out steps Baghdad must take to end other punitive measures. Those steps are expected to include the release of all POWs and a formal rescission of the Iraqi law that declared Kuwait to be the country's 19th province, Tutwiler said.
The resolution also will formally end the sanctions against trade with Kuwait that were imposed when Iraq took over the small Persian Gulf state.
Future of Iraq
The fact that Iraq has moved so quickly to accept allied terms for ending the war "indicates they know they are hurting," said one Administration official. "They see a need to resolve this issue" if the country is to have any hope for rebuilding its war-shattered economy.
Even if Iraq meets all the conditions, however, officials again emphasized that the allies intend to take a hard line--particularly in continuing an arms embargo--as long as Saddam Hussein remains in power.
"It would be much easier to look on Iraq's problems with some sympathy if (Hussein) were not in power," White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said.
French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas sounded a similar note. Future relations between the industrial world and Iraq "will depend very much on whether Saddam Hussein is still in power," Dumas told French reporters in Washington after meeting with Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III.
Western nations must "walk a fine line--avoiding giving oxygen to Saddam Hussein but at the same time avoiding giving the people of Iraq the feeling that we want to punish them," Dumas said, according to a participant in the meeting.
For allied officials, Thursday was a day for mutual congratulations, illustrated dramatically when Kuwaiti Ambassador Sheik Saud al Nasir al Sabah met with Bush in the Oval Office and told him he would "go down in history as the great liberator of my country."
"We are deeply grateful to you and our friend the United States for all that you have done, and our hearts go also to the families of the victims that have lost their lives bravely in operation Desert Storm," Saud said. "Our condolences to them, they have not died in vain."
Bush, in turn, praised the Kuwaitis and, later in the day, in a meeting with Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, congratulated the Saudi government on its participation in the anti-Iraq coalition.
Baker plans to visit Saudi Arabia, along with Israel, Syria, Egypt, Turkey and the Soviet Union in a trip likely to begin Wednesday, the State Department announced.
The trip, an Administration official said, is designed to "get the lay of the land" and begin the process of devising new security arrangements for the Gulf region. In addition, Baker aides hope the trip may mark the beginning of a new effort to find peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.