RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA — BEHIND the friendly grins that have cheered United States Secretary of State James Baker III's way around the Middle East this week, differences have emerged between Washington and its Arab allies over key issues of the postwar regional order, according to Western diplomats and local officials here. In the short term, the thorniest questions are how many US troops will remain in the region, how they will be deployed, and how long they will stay.
On the broader issue of Arab-Israeli relations, Arab leaders reiterated their firm support for an international conference on the Palestinian question, while Mr. Baker held to the US stand that it is "not the appropriate time" for such talks.
Following Baker's stopover in Cairo, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak agreed that "the present time" was not right for a conference, saying confidence-building measures between Israel and its Arab neighbors would first be required.
But Baker has also said that he saw flexibility on the part of the Arab allies, and in meetings with Israeli leaders March 12 in Jerusalem, he emphasized the need to "avoid retreating into stating final positions as being nonnegotiable demands."
During the discussions with Arab ministers in Riyadh on security arrangements, differences emerged among the Arab allies. Egypt and Syria have called for a quick US troop withdrawal, while their coalition allies in the Gulf are less happy with the idea. Indeed "Kuwait would like to see as many US soldiers stay as long as possible," says a Gulf country official, who asked not to be identified.
Even the government of Saudi Arabia, under strong pressure from Islamic conservatives to remove the Western military presence from its soil immediately, is said to be taking a more measured view.
"It will be a totally professional decision taken in technical terms," says Othman Al-Rawaf, head of the Gulf Studies Center at King Saud University. "If you are not convinced that Arab troops can do the job, then you have Westerners."
The Arab coalition partners - the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Egypt, and Syria - agreed last week in Damascus that Egyptian and Syrian troops would form the nucleus of a force to ensure regional security. How many there will be, where they will be stationed, and who else might join them still have to be decided.
In the end, diplomats here expect, the issue of a US presence will be fudged.
"We might end up with a token US land force in Kuwait," a Western diplomat suggests.
"The US naval presence in the Gulf will be beefed up, and the Air Force exercises people are talking about may turn out to be permanent, tactical wings rotating in and out one after the other."
At the same time, a GCC country official predicted, "it will take a long time before all the US troops have withdrawn from the region - well over six months."
Differences over how to approach the problem of Israel and the Palestinians, however, will be less easy to fudge.
While Baker pursues a "twin track" policy of encouraging movement on both Palestinian rights and Arab recognition of Israel at the same time, Arab leaders from Oman at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula to Syria have made it plain to the US secretary of state that they prefer an international conference under United Nations auspices to treat these questions.
"An international conference is the appropriate forum to get over all the procedural barriers" on the path to Arab recognition of Israel in return for the creation of a Palestinian state, the GCC country official said.
Their approach to the Palestinian question is one of the factors that binds the six Gulf states with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in one of the more unlikely power groupings to have emerged recently in the Middle East.
"They are all pro the PLO, but against Arafat's leadership" because of his support for Iraq during the Gulf war, says an Arab ambassador here, referring to the Palestine Liberation Organization headed by Yasser Arafat. "Their problems will come when they try to find a replacement for Arafat. They won't find anyone more realistic who can embody the Palestinian national consensus."
At a deeper level, however, the six-plus-two formula may have just what it takes to build a lasting axis to ensure the stability that has proved so elusive in the Middle East, says Mr. Al-Rawaf, the Gulf specialist.
Aside from the fact that the GCC countries can put up the money while Syria and Egypt put up the men, "the six need the two as windows to the rest of the Arab world, while the two know that there is a limit to their influence. The Gulf countries may be weak and vulnerable, but they have links to the West. Both sides know their limits and their needs," Al-Rawaf says.
Although Mr. Assad has rarely shown much sympathy for the oil-rich kingdoms of Arabia, "he has never been a great enemy or a threat," Al-Rawaf points out. "He can live and let live. People in the region know you can deal with Assad."
But the people are less clear how to deal with another regional giant, Iran, which has emerged from international isolation by its policy of careful neutrality during the war, but has by no means won the trust of Gulf neighbors.
Although no one says so publicly, the threats to the Gulf against which the security force is being formed could come only from Iraq and Iran, and Iraq poses little danger in the foreseeable future.
In the longer term, the GCC country official said, "we are interested in good relations with Iran, and we have to involve them in security arrangements, too. It was just that there was a need to move quickly, and with Egypt and Syria things were already in place. With Iran there are many steps to go."
There are also many steps to go with the other regional power that all the military and diplomatic maneuvers are skirting - Iraq. The current unrest in Iraq and uncertainty over the country's future make any sure planning impossible; but in an era following that of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, diplomats say, Iraq could not be ignored.
"If there were a total change in Iraq tomorrow, I could see Baghdad applying to join the Damascus group the next day," says a Gulf official. "And I would not be surprised if it were accepted the day after."