FOR Gulf watchers it has been a week of roller-coaster emotions. Hopes for a peaceful solution to the crisis triggered by Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait were buoyed when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein made good on an offer to release the last of 3,000 foreign hostages held in Iraq and Kuwait.
But a week of promise ended on a sour note as the United States and Iraq, trading angry charges, failed to agree on a date for talks that could provide the last chance to avert a military showdown in the Gulf region.
On Friday an exasperated President Bush hinted he was prepared to withdraw an offer to dispatch Secretary of State James Baker III to Baghdad to talk with Saddam. Mr. Bush accused Saddam of trying to manipulate the date of the Baker visit to drag diplomatic discussions beyond the Jan. 15 deadline for an Iraqi pullout from Kuwait set by the United Nations Security Council.
Iraq announced Saturday that Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz would not travel to Washington for a preliminary meeting with Bush, as tentatively scheduled. Baghdad alone has the right to set a date for Mr. Baker's meeting with Saddam, Iraq said.
In a related development, an Arab mediation effort collapsed late last week after Algerian President Chadli Benjedid, during a visit to Baghdad, failed to exact concessions from Saddam in return for a promise of Arab help in mediating Iraqi grievances against Kuwait.
Mr. Benjedid and Jordan's King Hussein have sought to bring Iraq and Saudi Arabia together for talks in an effort to avert a war over the Kuwait crisis. The Saudis refused to receive the Algerian leader, saying that unless Saddam were willing to withdraw from Kuwait there would be nothing to talk about.
While declaring talks with Iraq are ``on hold,'' Bush stopped short of issuing an ultimatum to Saddam.
``If we're going the extra mile, we can't be unreasonable and eliminate any possibility on this prematurely,'' said one US official, explaining Bush's position. ``It would be stupid to go to the 12th and allow Saddam to delay and have the initiative in setting the framework for talks. But if Saddam makes a reasonable offer it will be accepted.''
What happens after Jan. 3 will ``depend on the president's reading of the domestic audience,'' the official says.
On Nov. 30, when he first proposed talks with Iraq, Bush said he would send Baker to Baghdad on a date between Nov. 15 and Jan. 15. But administration officials later concluded that any meeting after the Jan. 3 would not give Saddam ample time to remove his troops by the Jan. 15 - the date by which, according to a UN Security Council resolution, the Gulf allies may use force to remove the Iraqis from Kuwait. In his remarks Friday Bush expressed anger that Saddam had found time in his schedule to meet with such visitors as ``Kurt Waldheim, Willy Brandt, Muhammad Ali, Ted Heath, John Connally, and Ramsey Clark'' but could not work in Baker with two weeks' advance notice.
``It simply is not credible that he cannot, over a two-week period, make a couple of hours available to the secretary of state on an issue of this importance unless, of course, he is seeking to circumvent the United Nations deadline,'' Bush said.
Administration officials have repeatedly stressed that the purpose of the proposed talks is not to negotiate but to impress upon Saddam the US's determination to enforce the UN resolutions calling for the evacuation of Kuwait.
Jan. 3, Bush's implied deadline for negotiations, is also the day Congress comes back into session. Bush said Friday that he is weighing asking Congress to authorize offensive military action if Iraq fails to meet the Jan. 15 deadline.
Congressional critics have complained that Bush is unwilling to allow international economic sanctions a chance to take effect before launching military action against Iraq. But many lawmakers believe that if Saddam spurns Bush's offer for talks before Jan. 15 Bush will be in a stronger position to secure the kind of authorization for war that he has been given by the UN.