WASHINGTON, Jan. 12 (UPI) -- Congress granted President Bush the power to make war against Iraq and U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar arrived in Baghdad Saturday to meet with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in a last-ditch peace mission.
With the clock running on a U.N. deadline at midnight EST Tuesday for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, Perez de Cuellar said he was willing to ask the U.N. Security Council for a neutral peacekeeping force for the region.
The U.N. chief carried good luck wishes from Bush, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and European Community foreign ministers, who met with Perez de Cuellar Friday in Geneva and pledged to back a comprehensive Middle East solution to the gulf crisis.
But Secretary of State James Baker has ruled out an immediate international conference on the Middle East because this might be construed as linking Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait with the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The United States has consistently opposed linking a Middle East conference with Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait, saying it would appear to reward aggression.
In Washington, Congress passed a resolution authorizing President Bush to use any means -- including a military offensive -- to evict Iraq from Kuwait, which has occupied since Aug. 2. The Senate passed the resolution 52-47 and the House by a vote of 250-183.
The authority, passed by Congress after three days of soul-searching debate, falls just short of a formal declaration of war, an action the United States has not taken since Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.
At the White House, Bush said: ''This action by the Congress unmistakably demonstrates the United States' commitment to the international demand for a complete and unconditional withdrawal of Iraq from Kuwait. This clear expression of the Congress represents the last best chance for peace.''
Outside the White House and on Capitol Hill, hundreds of protesters chanted anti-war slogans and carried signs opposing military force as the Congress debated the resolutions.
Before the congressional action, thousands of anti-war protesters demonstrated in London, Paris, Rome and the German cities of Frankfurt, Bonn, Munich, Leipzig and Chemnitz. Marchers also staged a candlelit march in the Mexican town of Chilpancingo, 185 miles south of Mexico City.
The official Iraqi News Agency said U.N. chief Perez de Cuellar was met at Baghdad airport by Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz and other officials.
U.N. officials in Amman, Jordan said he carried a five-point plan calling for the simultaneous withdrawals by Iraqi forces from Kuwait and U.S.-led forces from the region.
The plan also reportedly called for deployment of U.N. peacekeeping troops in the oil-rich emirate once Iraqis start to pull out. It also calls for guarantees for holding an international Middle East peace conference on the Palestine issue once the crisis is over, the officials said.
The officials added there was hope Saddam might withdraw if he received guarantees from Perez de Cuellar the Palestinian question would get priority after the crisis ended, and that his army would not be attacked while withdrawing.
The plan was apparently approved by a number of European Community foreign ministers when they met with the U.N. diplomat Friday.
Baker met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo before flying to the Syrian capital Damascus where he met with President Hafez Assad.
Baker warned although time was running out, Iraq still had a chance to make peace a reality in the region by withdrawing from Kuwait.
As Baker arrived in Syria, Assad -- a long-time foe of Saddam -- issued an extraordinary appeal to the Iraqi leader to withdraw from Kuwait and vowed Syria would fight alongside Baghdad if Iraq came under U.S. attack after withdrawing.
The message, the first communication in almost two decades between the Arab leaders, was broadcast in open-letter style over the official Damascus radio.
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharra meanwhile told a news conference, ''Israel should not interfere,'' suggesting Syria would switch sides, or at least drop out of the U.S.-led coalition, if the Israelis were to strike Iraq -- even in self-defense.
In Baghdad, meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad closed its doors Saturday after the charge d'affaires and six other diplomats left the Iraqi capital on a chartered jet for Frankfurt, Germany, on their way home.
Also aboard were diplomats from Brazil, Europe and Canada in a diplomatic exodus three days before the U.N. deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait or face military force.
The Los Angeles Times reported Saturday that even moderate losses of jets, tanks and missiles by the U.S. military in a gulf war could be financially prohibitive to replace at current prices, with the price tag reaching perhaps $50 billion.
That figure is equal to more than half the Pentagon's annual procurement budget.
--The rubber-stamp Iraqi National Assembly announced it would meet in special session on Monday, 24 hours before the U.N. deadline, apparently to discuss the crisis. Arab diplomats said the assembly may propose a peaceful solution.
--The Soviet Parliament directed Gorbachev to increase contacts with Iraq and the United States and to redouble his efforts at promoting a peaceful solution to the crisis.
--British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd arrived in the United Arab Emirates during his own gulf tour to reassure allies of London's determination to stick by the withdrawal deadline, and the British foreign office advised its citizens to leave Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, Israel and the occupied territories.
--Some 60 Peace Corps volunteers were flown out of Tunisia and most of the remaining 200 to 250 Americans were preparing to leave if war breaks out, American officials said. Tunisia has remained officially neutral, but observers fear a surge of pro-Iraqi sentiment if war breaks out.
--Iraqi Foreign Minister Aziz met with Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat to review the gulf crisis.
--Egypt said it has set up a high-level committee to coordinate anti- terrorism measures should war erupt in the gulf.
--China suspended both of the Middle East routes flown by its state- run international airline Saturday, saying it wanted to ensure travelers' safety in the event of war in the region.
--Pope John Paul II spoke out strongly against war in the gulf, saying ''peace obtained by arms could only prepare new violence.''