AS the United Nations deadline for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait approaches, Baghdad plans to sit tight, say high-level government officials here. Rather than move toward a partial withdrawal, as some opponents are predicting, Baghdad will wait out the situation with the hope that Europe will pressure the United States into negotiations. But, officials say, Iraq is ready for a military showdown if the international alliance opts for the use of force.
An emergency meeting of European Community foreign ministers has been called for tomorrow in Luxembourg to discuss the Gulf crisis. Germany and France are expected for call for direct talks with Iraq before the Jan. 15 deadline. The US and Iraq have been unable to agree on a date for a meeting between Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and US Secretary of State James Baker III.
Iraqi officials say that Germany approached Baghdad to try to mediate a date, but then decided it would wait for the outcome of the EC meeting before taking further steps.
The Iraqi calculation is based on an assumption that Europe and other countries are reluctant to go to war, and that the US won European support for the UN resolution authorizing force only by convincing its allies that Iraq would be forced to withdraw before the deadline. Thus, says an Iraqi official, once the deadline passes without a withdrawal, Europe will have to reconsider its position.
Interviews with Iraqi officials and analysts indicate that Iraq considers a withdrawal from Kuwait prior to Jan. 15 or to negotiations paramount to surrender to the US.
Therefore, even if European countries do not move far enough to stop a confrontation, Baghdad sees compliance with the deadline as unthinkable. It would only encourage the US to avoid negotiations and impose more conditions on Iraq.
``It is a war of nerves. The party which blinks first will have to make more concessions. We cannot bow,'' says an Iraqi official.
From the Iraqi viewpoint, challenging the deadline and US attempts to fix the date for Mr. Baker's visit are decisive battles aimed at pressuring the US to reconsider its relationship with Iraq and with the Arab world.
``If we accept what the US is trying to impose, then what is the point of pressing for Arab sovereignty and for a new and more equal basis for Arab-American relations,'' says the official.
That does not mean, however, that Baghdad is not ready for a compromise over the dates. Sources close to the Iraqi government say that Baghdad is ready to accept any date between Jan. 3 and Jan. 12 for Baker's visit. ``The issue is not the date per se. We reject the way that the US insists on dealing with other countries. The era of colonialism is gone, and Washington has to understand that,'' the well-placed Iraqi source said.
According to senior Arab officials and Western diplomats, Baghdad and Washington might be willing to have a third party propose a new date to prevent the collapse of prospects for dialogue.
Although Iraqi officials believe European countries will play a crucial role in averting a war and pressuring Washington to talk, they concede that none of the countries that have tried to mediate have deviated from US policies.
``There has not been a serious mediation effort yet,'' says the senior Iraqi official. ``The bottom line of all of the mediation efforts has fallen into the American policy by demanding an Iraqi implementation of Security Council resolutions.''
The official insists that the Security Council resolutions reflect US interests rather than an international consensus.
Initially Baghdad was counting on France to lead the camp of dissent in Europe, especially after French proposals last September calling for an international peace conference to solve all the problems in the region.
Baghdad responded by releasing French nationals earlier than other hostages, hoping that its action would spur a Paris-led diplomatic campaign for a linkage between the Gulf crisis and a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
But the step backfired, say French diplomats in the region, as an embarrassed Paris then had to slow down its diplomacy for fear of discrediting itself within the alliance.
Even some of Iraq's friends in the Arab world believe that Baghdad made a tactical mistake by expecting its release of the French nationals to bring results.
``Baghdad should have taken a practical step, such as a declaration of intent to leave Kuwait to allow France the chance to pursue its proposals,'' says a senior Arab official.
But Iraqi officials disagree. ``How can we give any concession like that to any European country while none have proved so far their independence from the US,'' the senior Iraqi official counters.
Iraqi officials argue that any concessions to a third party would only harden Washington's position, unless European countries pursued ``an independent line'' or the US was ready to compromise .
``We are ready to compromise if the US is ready to compromise,'' the official says.
Iraqis are not clear on what they would consider a US compromise. But other senior Arab officials, who have been in touch with the Iraqi leadership recently, say that Baghdad is ready to accept the Security Council resolutions as a basis for negotiations.
``The US is demanding an unconditional and complete implementation of Security Council resolutions, while in practice, UN resolutions are never fully implemented, but are used as a basis for negotiations. Why should this case be any different?'' says a senior Palestine Liberation official after meeting with Iraqi officials.
He pointed out that the US has been asking the Arabs and Israel to negotiate on the basis of UN resolutions and has not demanded that Israel should unconditionally comply with these resolutions.
The scenario for a compromise, Iraqi officials indicate, should also involve a US recognition of Iraq as a regional power and a special role for Iraq in Kuwait even after an Iraqi withdrawal.
Tomorrow: More on Iraq's scenario for compromise.