Saudis' Softer Tone Seen as Bid to Avoid War

AT the end of a week filled with confusing diplomatic signals, officials in this desert kingdom seem intent on conveying this simple message: An Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait remains the only solution to the Gulf crisis. ``We have never accepted [Iraqi President] Saddam's claims to Kuwait,'' says a senior Saudi source. ``There is no flexibility on withdrawal or restoration'' of the Kuwait government.

Despite the disclaimer, diplomatic observers are reading significance into the new way in which Saudi officials have begun making an old point. They say the more conciliatory tone adopted in statements this week by two senior officials, including King Fahd, may reflect a growing Saudi eagerness to retrieve the Gulf crisis from the brink of war.

In comments sprinkled with indirect references to Saddam Hussein as an Arab ``brother,'' Prince Sultan ibn Abdel Aziz al-Saud, Saudi Arabia's defense minister, twice pressed this week for a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

The prince's remarks were widely taken as a trial balloon designed to encourage what some regard as the only compromise capable of saving the region from a costly war: swapping an Iraqi withdrawal for two Kuwaiti islands that would give Iraq an outlet on the Gulf.

``It's a message to Saddam to sober up, get out of Kuwait, and let's talk. These guys are here and they are thinking about a full-scale war,'' comments a Saudi journalist.

``The new element in [Prince Sultan's comments] is that we will give you something in return. It's either a message or he should be fired like your Air Force chief of staff was,'' adds the journalist, referring to Air Force Chief of Staff Michael Dugan, who was fired for speculating about bombing of Iraqi cities and Baghdad.

Saudi officials insist that there is nothing new in the Saudi position and that the kingdom is still firmly committed to United Nations and Arab League resolutions calling for Iraq's withdrawal as a precondition to any negotiations.

``We have always encouraged a peaceful settlement,'' says a Saudi source.

Still, Saudi officials acknowledge that, with the buildup of anti-Iraqi forces in the region now almost complete, they are in a more secure position to emphasize the olive branch over the mailed fist in their two-pronged approach to Iraq.

More to the point,diplomatic analysts here suggest, the toned-down rhetoric may reflect a more sobering assessment of the cost - and what may Saudis appear to regard as the increasing likelihood - of military conflict in the region.

The bleak outlook for compromise was hinted at this week by the senior official, one of the most knowledgeable in the kingdom on national security affairs.

Soldiers in Iraqi military units deployed along the Iranian border were dismayed when they were forced last month to abandon territory taken during Iraq's costly eight-year war against Iran, the official explained to a group of reporters. Although several commanders were replaced by Saddam, Saudi officials believe that discontent within the Army could spread, if the Iraqi leader makes yet another concession without securing anything in return.

``Can Saddam afford to withdraw from Kuwait? Realistically, I don't think he can, so the potential for military conflict is there,'' says the official.

The Saudis estimate that the 300,000 allied troops in the Gulf region now face an Iraqi Army of 500,000; of those, 350,000 are based in Kuwait. Several hundred Iraqi soldiers have defected to Saudi Arabia by Jeep and on foot, providing fresh intelligence, Saudi sources say.

If the Gulf crisis leads to war, Saudi officials say, the consensus among the Western and Arab states arrayed against Saddam will hold so long as the military objective is liberating Kuwait - even if air strikes are required against military targets in Iraq.

``As long as the aim is to liberate Kuwait, there will be no opposition,'' says the Saudi source, a senior official in the government.

But any ground invasion would cause the anti-Iraq coalition to collapse, since Arabs would like to see the removal of Saddam but not the destruction of Iraq.

With or without war, says the official, any settlement of the Gulf crisis will require UN guarantees against further Iraqi aggression, possibly including a UN military force and continued UN-sponsored sanctions against Iraq.

``The [Iraqi] Army does not have to to be destroyed, but the use of the Army has to be neutralized,'' says the Saudi official.

The open-ended positioning of US troops on Saudi soil after the crisis would only be acceptable to Saudi Arabia, if they are part of UN force, the official adds.

Saudi sources say their main concern is time. The longer the situation remains deadlocked, the harder it will be to dislodge Iraqi forces from Kuwait, they say.

But time is also working against Saddam, who is feeling the pinch as international sanctions slowly start to take effect.

Saudi sources report that food riots erupted Monday in two Iraqi cities, leaving several dead. Saudi and other analysts estimate that within two to three months the effects of the embargo will grow serious, with supplies of food, heating oil, and clothes thinning out and peacetime industries running down.

Although Iraq is canabalizing weapons and planes to keep military equipment running, military production will also be hurt by the embargo. Saudi sources report that North Korea is now negotiating with Iraq to sell weapons in violation of the embargo.

Gloomy Saudi analysts say whether or not the crisis ends in war is now Saddam's choice.

``The first two weeks the tough decisions were ours to make,'' says the Saudi official. ``Now the tough decisions are Saddam's.''

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