THE United States can expect little from the coming round of talks with Iraq unless there is movement on the Palestinian question, according to senior Arab officials close to the Iraqi government. At a crucial mini-summit held last week in Baghdad, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is said to have pledged to Jordan's King Hussein and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yasser Arafat that he will accept a political compromise over Kuwait only if the US endorses steps to solve the Palestinian question.
``Iraq insists that there will be no settlement for the Kuwaiti question without a settlement for the Palestinian question,'' said Abdullah Hourani, a PLO executive committee member who attended the Baghdad meeting.
Saddam will clearly demand a US commitment to convening an international peace conference and might even ask for a date for the the conference to be held, Arab sources close to the Baghdad meeting say. If the US endorses a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for an international peace conference, Arab officials expect Baghdad to endorse a more flexible stance on Kuwait. (See story below.)
``Iraq then would have succeeded in asserting a linkage or an interrelation between the two conflicts,'' said an Arab official.
Jordan's King Hussein stepped up pressure for a comprehensive settlement in a speech yesterday, in which he called ``for the convening of an international peace conference on the Middle East at the time when the implementation of the Security Council resolution regarding Kuwait begins.''
If Washington vetoes the Security Council resolution endorsing an international peace conference on the Middle East, however, Baghdad will step up efforts to press for a clear US commitment before any talks on Kuwait at its meetings later this month, according to Arab officials.
At the Baghdad meeting, Saddam secured the full support of Jordan, the PLO, and Yemen (represented by Vice President Ali Salem Al Beidh) to represent Arab demands on the Palestinian question with Washington. King Hussein and Mr. Arafat will embark on a campaign to rally Arab and international support for Saddam's negotiating position on the Palestinian question. King Hussein also called yesterday for an inter-Arab dialogue to heal the rift in the Arab ranks over the Gulf crisis. He implied that Jordan seeks to mediate.
Jordanian and other Arab officials, say that neither King Hussein nor Arafat will pressure Saddam to compromise on Kuwait until the US responds to Iraqi demands for comprehensive negotiations on the Palestinian question.
The Iraqi-led strategy has not met with a positive response from the US, which insists that the coming American-Iraqi contacts will not evolve into any form of negotiations with Baghdad and that Washington will not drop its objections to an international peace conference.
Baghdad's decision last week to release all of the foreign hostages is viewed by Arab officials as part of Saddam's tactic to press for negotiations on the Israeli-Arab conflict by removing the hostage question off the agenda.
According to Arab officials, Jordan, the PLO, and Yemen expressed their concern, at the meeting with Saddam, that the US might use the question of hostages to delay negotiations and to rally international opinion against Baghdad, especially following the Security Council authorization of the use of force if Iraq refused to withdraw from Kuwait.
The officials, however, said that Arab leaders did not need to exert pressure on Iraq to release the hostages, as they found Saddam already more than willing to release his ``guests,'' as as they are called in Iraq.
The US had made it clear to the Iraqi government, immediately following the US decision to initiate contacts with Baghdad, that releasing the hostages remained a top priority, diplomatic sources in the region say.
Saddam had already been considering an amnesty for all foreigners, Arab sources say, but was waiting for a positive sign for a dialogue from Washington.
``Iraq used the foreign nationals to lessen the political blockade. When Washington lifted the embargo on dialogue, the political blockade was broken, and there was no purpose from further keeping the foreign nationals,'' said an Arab official with close contacts with the Iraqis.
Yet in Amman or Baghdad no illusions exist that the military option has been dropped. Iraqis have very strong suspicions that the US will only use the contacts to boost its argument for a military action against Iraq after the deadline on Jan. 15, which was set by the Security Council for an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.
In fact, well-informed Arab analysts believe that the most-recent Iraqi proposal to set Jan. 12 as the date for the visit of US Secretary of State James Baker III to Baghdad is an attempt to lock Washington into extended negotiations and preclude a military option.
Saddam has already told Jordan, the PLO, and Yemen that he will not shun a military confrontation if the US has not changed its position on an unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait, according to an Arab official.