AS United States Secretary of State James Baker III bangs the gavel this afternoon to convene the United Nations Security Council, he will be starting a process that could lead to war in the Middle East early next year. To underscore the significance of the unprecedented Council session, which will give Iraq an ultimatum to get out of Kuwait, foreign ministers from most of the 15 member-states are expected to attend. Of those, diplomats predict, 13 will favor a text authorizing use of ``all necessary means'' if, by Jan. 15, Baghdad does not order a withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
However, a group of Council members referred to as ``the gang of four'' - Yemen, Cuba, Malaysia, and Colombia - has proposed but not pushed an alternative draft resolution asking UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar to use his good offices to resolve the crisis peacefully. Failing that, they are proposing that the dispute be taken to the international Court of Justice for arbitration. The four now say they will submit their text in December, when Yemen takes over the rotating presidency of the Council.
Yemen's UN Ambassador Abdalla Saleh al-Ashtal said he would not vote in favor of the resolution, because, he said, it would ``create a psychological atmosphere which will make any discussions with Iraq harder ... and it could lead to war.''
Cuba is also not expected to support the resolution, despite an unusual effort at persuasion by Robert Kimmitt, undersecretary of state for political affairs, at a meeting with Cuba's UN Ambassador Ricardo Alarcon in Washington last weekend. Cuba's Foreign Minister Isidoro Malmierca will attend today's Council session - and sources say Mr. Baker and Mr. Malmierca may meet while in New York.
Mr. P'erez de Cu'ellar said Tuesday that he was ``still hopeful that a peaceful solution will be found, because even if this draft resolution is approved, it gives some chance to a peaceful arrangement.''
THE UN chief failed to win any concessions from Iraq in talks with Foreign Minister Tareq Aziz in Amman, Jordan two months ago. But he is expected to make a last-ditch effort during the six-week space provided by the resolution.
The US, Britain, and other Council members are expected to pledge in today's meeting that there will be no further action against Iraq, either in the Council or on the ground, before the deadline - provided that Iraq does not mount an attack or cause harm to foreign hostages.
``It gives us six weeks to find a solution - that's time we didn't have before,'' says an Algerian diplomat, adding: ``There is no other hope.''
Since Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, the Council has adopted 10 resolutions mandating a total and immediate Iraqi withdrawal and imposing comprehensive economic sanctions enforced by a maritime and air blockade.
Sir David Hannay, Britain's UN Ambassador, said that an account of atrocities given by refugees from Kuwait in an open Council meeting Tuesday was a ``very compelling presentation'' which provided ``new and horrific'' information about the Iraqi occupation. It also made a ``very powerful argument'' for setting the January deadline for Iraq to conform to the Security Council resolutions. If Iraq refused, he said, the crisis would enter a new and totally different stage.
Diplomats say privately that the Council will be looking for any sign of flexibility from the Iraqi leadership. But they won't say what will happen if, at the last moment, Iraq makes a credible offer of future withdrawal.
The diplomatic sources also point to a range of other measures specified in the UN Charter that could be used, short of military force, even after the deadline. These include the disruption of mail, telephone, telex, and satellite communication links, and a complete break of all diplomatic relations.