THE message for Iraq from the United States and its Gulf allies continues to be a tough one: ``No compromise on getting out of Kuwait.'' President Bush yesterday proposed that Secretary of State James Baker III meet with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tareq Aziz in Switzerland from Jan. 7 through Jan. 9. The White House asked that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein respond by Saturday.
The announcement capped a flurry of speculation here in recent days that Mr. Baker would manage to work out a date to meet with Saddam himself before Jan. 15, the United Nations-set deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.
Even if the meeting in Switzerland takes place, however, all indications are that Baker will not be ready to make a deal.
US officials say there is no question of softening the long-held UN position that Iraq must leave Kuwait completely, without preconditions, or face ouster by force.
``There has been no change in our position,'' said presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater.
Asked about reports of more flexibility in the policies of both sides in the Gulf standoff, Mr. Fitzwater maintained that ``the speculation has gotten way ahead of the facts.''
European nations involved in the Gulf effort have not yet sounded any softer terms, despite efforts to mount a last-ditch peace-talk effort under the auspices of the European Community (EC).
An EC summit scheduled for today could authorize the EC's current chairman, Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jacques Poos, to invite his Iraqi counterpart to Brussels for discussions. But the EC won't go outside the bounds of already-passed UN resolutions, according to Mr. Poos.
If Iraq vacates Kuwait without preconditions, ``then all possibilities for discussion seem to me to be open,'' said Poos.
He added that he was optimistic about an such a withdrawal: ``If Saddam Hussein does his calculations, he will see he has no chance and will give in.''
At press time, Baker was considering a trip to Europe and the Gulf region to consult with US allies once again in advance of the looming deadline. Presumably, part of the purpose of such a trip would be to put him close to Iraq in case the possibility of seeing Saddam develops quickly.
All this maneuvering seems so much ``diplomatic dance,'' says Ambassador Hermann Eilts, a former US envoy to Saudi Arabia. ``One ought not to overrate'' its potential for breaking the Gulf deadlock.
Both sides know they are unlikely to hear any hint of compromise in last-ditch talks, says Mr. Eilts. Both know the other has heard their positions over and over. But at the same time both want to appear to the world to have gone the last mile for peace.
President Bush says he wants Saddam to know the US is serious about the use of force. But, asks Eilts, with hundreds of thousands of troops deployed to Saudi Arabia at a cost of billions of dollars, how can that commitment be doubted?
Iraq talks of a desire for peace and negotiation and confuses the issue with outlines of ``compromise'' that don't require withdrawal from Kuwait, says Eilts. ``The two parties are involved in a poker game. Each is prepared to play it out for what it's worth.''
As the Jan. 15 deadline approaches, there is no reason to believe US pressure is making Saddam waver. Iraq continues to reinforce its military positions along the Kuwaiti-Saudi border and still has some 510,000 troops and more than 4,000 tanks in the Kuwaiti theater of operations.
``We see the Iraqi forces remaining in Kuwait in their fortified positions and improving those positions,'' said US Army Lt. Col. Greg Pepin at the weekly Central Command briefing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Even the commander-in-chief may be resigned to the prospect of war. In a television interview with David Frost, broadcast Jan. 2, President Bush said his gut feeling was Iraq would withdraw. ``I haven't decided that we can't wait for sanctions,'' he said. But he added: ``I am not convinced that sanctions alone will bring this man to his senses.''
US officials believe that if war does break out they will be able to quickly gain the critical high ground of air superiority.
At the Central Command briefing, Colonel Pepin was pointedly dismissive of Iraqi air force pilots, saying they don't have the training to respond to the fluid battles of modern air war.
``For them to move in and engage different targets is a very complex, timely operation. It moves very quickly with a lot of command and control operations,'' Pepin said. ``We practice that continually. ... We haven't as yet seen the Iraqis capable of performing operations of this nature.''
Iraq has the largest air force of any Middle East nation, with more than 700 combat aircraft. Most of the planes are Soviet-made, and the 30 Iraqi MIG-29 interceptors are considered a technical match for US F-16s.
There now are more than 1,300 US aircraft operating in the Gulf theater, said Pepin. US planes flew some 3,000 combat air patrols over Saudi Arabia in the last week alone.