Europeans Take a More Independent Tack on Gulf Crisis

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IRAQ'S surprise rebuff of the European Community's invitation to high-level talks this week seems unlikely to produce the desired effect: a splitting of the international coalition that for five months has been determined to reverse Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. What remains to be seen is what effect Iraq's ``no'' will have on the Europeans.

The Europeans, while still insisting on full Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, have developed a common position on the Gulf which in some areas - most notably, ``widening'' of the crisis to include the Arab-Israeli conflict - distances the EC from the United States.

For Iraq, which has been counting on Europe to weaken the US-orchestrated international front, that distance is apparently not yet great enough. At the same time, it appears that for Iraq it is not the EC but individual European nations, in particular the most influential, that count.

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This seems all the more true since the announcement of Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz's decision not to go to Luxembourg - which currently holds the EC's six-month rotating presidency - came the same day as extensive talks in Baghdad between Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and a French parliamentarian, Michel Vauzelle.

Mr. Vauzelle, who returned to Paris yesterday after two days in the Iraqi capital, insisted he was in Baghdad in his ``personal capacity'' as president of the National Assembly's foreign affairs committee. But his close ties to French President Fran,cois Mitterrand, for whom he served as chief spokesman from 1981-86, were lost on no one, least of all the Iraqis.

Vauzelle met with Saddam for four and a half hours - much of the time in a t^ete-`a-t^ete, with both men speaking English - considerably longer than any previous meeting during the crisis between the Iraqi president and a visiting Westerner. Vauzelle will report on his talks to Mr. Mitterrand, who receives US Secretary of State James Baker III tomorrow.

Mr. Baker then goes on to Geneva on Wednesday, where he will meet the Iraqi foreign minister. The Europeans had invited Mr. Aziz to meet the foreign ministers of Luxembourg, Italy, and the Netherlands - the current, past, and subsequent presidencies of the EC - on Thursday, when Baker is scheduled to continue on to the Middle East for talks with Arab leaders aligned against the Iraqi invasion.

At the French Foreign Ministry, chief spokesman Daniel Bernard said Iraq's decision not to accept the EC's invitation was regrettable. He added, however, that all channels for future talks remained open.

Other sources within the Foreign Ministry described Iraq's decision as a ``surprise.'' An official, noting Iraq's stated reason for the refusal - that the EC position remains too close to that of the US - said the move resembled earlier attempts by Iraq to weaken the international front opposing the takeover of Kuwait. ``But that tactic simply isn't going to work,'' the source said.

More delicate for French diplomacy is the question of how the effect of the Vauzelle visit to Baghdad will be viewed by France's EC partners. France is likely to be suspected of pursuing a separate dialogue, a suspicion that has occasionally bloomed during the crisis, and this could create problems for French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas.

It was Mr. Dumas who proposed Friday's emergency EC meeting, in conjunction with his close friend, German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. It was also Dumas who proposed at that meeting a seven-point plan for resolving the crisis.

From that plan, the foreign ministers adopted language stating that Iraq should receive a guarantee against attack if all United Nationsresolutions are respected. The ministers also confirmed the EC's ``engagement to actively contribute to resolving other problems of the region,'' once the crisis is resolved peacefully.

This last point moves closer to the link sought by Iraq between the issue of Kuwait and the Palestinian issue, and is also the area of greatest divergence between the EC and the US. But it is not a new position for the EC, nor, as Europeans point out, should it be construed as a concession to Saddam, since the EC has called for an international conference on the Arab-Israeli conflict since 1980.

Still, some French political analysts have theorized for several months that the Gulf crisis might find a peaceful resolution through a tandem tough-guy, soft-guy approach from the West.

According to that scenario the ``heavies,'' played by the US, would convince Iraq that it faced certain defeat if it didn't back down, while the ``softies,'' the Europeans, would show Iraq how the crisis could be resolved without Iraq's destruction or humiliation.

By maintaining its resolve to see the UN resolutions respected and tight coordination with the US maintained, however, the EC is still sticking too close to the tough guys for Iraq's liking.

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