AS the United States and Iraqi leaders jockey over the timing of their first face-to-face meetings since the start of the Gulf crisis, a growing number of Middle East experts are warning of possible troubles ahead for President Bush. Mr. Bush proposed US-Iraq talks on Nov. 30 to pave the way for military action if Iraq failed to withdraw from Kuwait by a Jan. 15 deadline set by the United Nations Security Council.
But the talks could enable Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to finesse the January deadline and gain the compromise he may have envisioned all along, some Western and Arab analysts believe. The talks could also lead to the undoing of Bush's signal foreign policy achievement: creation of the international coalition now arrayed against Iraq.
``It's an extremely fluid situation and could be a source of danger,'' says one Arab diplomat of the pending dialogue.
As of Wednesday morning, the US and Iraq were still haggling over the dates of a proposed Washington meeting between Bush and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz - now tentatively scheduled for Monday - and a follow-up meeting in Baghdad between US Secretary of State James Baker III and President Saddam. The first part of Saddam's apparent three-pronged strategy to avert a US invasion has been to seek to delay the Baghdad meeting until mid-January, thus dragging talks past the Jan. 15 deadline.
The second part was to release all foreign hostages, removing one major reason for war.
The third part, expected when the talks in Baghdad begin, may be to scale back his demands from retaining all of Kuwait to control over the Rumalia oil field that straddles the Iraq-Kuwait border, plus two strategic Gulf islands that Iraq has long sought.
Many analysts say a war launched to prevent such limited territorial gains would almost certainly produce a wave of protests at home, in Europe, and around the Arab world.
``It was going to be difficult enough to wage a war to liberate Kuwait,'' the Arab diplomat says. ``By turning the crisis into a border dispute, Saddam will make it much harder.''
Iraq reportedly has erected a barbed-wire fence around the Rumalia field, which it now claims as part of Basra Province; it claims the rest of Kuwait as a new and separate province.
The division lends credence to the notion that Saddam's real ambitions are limited to Rumalia and the Gulf islands.
``If he really wants to keep all of Kuwait, he wouldn't have done this,'' the Arab diplomat says.
Arab sources say Bush's Nov. 30 announcement suddenly raised in Arab capitals the frightening prospect of a diplomatic solution that could leave Saddam in place, American forces drawn down, and the US's Arab partners exposed and vulnerable. This sense of vulnerability could prompt the Gulf states to open their own channels to Baghdad, throwing the diplomatic process into disarray.
``The Americans told people not to talk,'' says the Arab source, referring to ``parallel negotiations'' that could result. ``Now that the US has raised the possibility that Saddam may survive, everyone wants to make peace with him. It promises confusion that threatens the coalition.''
``Arab states might seek to gain Saddam's favor by demonstrating that they are more anxious to make peace with Iraq than Washington is,'' the diplomat adds.
In a worst-case scenario, Arab governments could feel compelled to forgive debts owed by Baghdad or even help pay the costs of Iraqi reconstruction, leaving Saddam more powerful and more menacing than ever.
To keep the alliance from unraveling, Washington will need to embark on extensive consultations with its Arab allies, says this well-placed diplomat.
``The only way to avert a crisis is through extensive contact between Washington and the Arab states,'' the diplomat says. ``They need to be assured that the US is not going to do anything in the future without everybody [in the coalition] agreeing to it.''
Jordan and Algeria are among several Arab states that have sought to end the crisis by brokering talks between Baghdad and Riyadh. Saudi Arabia and Egypt, among others, have refused to talk to Iraq until Iraqi forces withdraw from Kuwait.
One element of an Arab ``component'' of a Gulf settlement would be agreement to support a UN peacekeeping force with majority Arab representation. As a precedent, one former Arab diplomat points to a peacekeeping force sent to the Congo in the 1960s that was comprised mostly of Africans.
Another element would be an international conference that would make any solution to the Gulf crisis part of an overall peace process. The US rejects such linkage as a concession to Saddam, who has sought to divert attention from Kuwait by pointing to Israel's 23-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
``If the US view is that they cannot be linked, the reality is that they cannot be delinked,'' says the former diplomat. ``You can't penalize Palestinians for what the Iraqis did in Kuwait.''