WITH four days left until the United Nations deadline for Iraq to quit Kuwait or face ouster by force, the fuse of the Gulf confrontation has almost burned down. For five months small diplomatic developments have loomed large, seeming fit reasons for either more optimism or more gloom about the basic Gulf question: Will there be fighting? Now, after a fruitless meeting between US Secretary of State James Baker III and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, it appears in retrospect that there has been nothing but a steady march toward war since Iraqi tanks first rolled into the small neighboring state.
The last, best hope for peace seems to ride with UN Secretary General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar's weekend mission to Baghdad. Given the demonstrated interest of France, Algeria, and other nations in negotiating a settlement, however, the next few days are liable to be filled with frantic diplomacy.
``You will see diplomatic activity thrown into even higher gear,'' says Ambassador Walter Cutler, head of Meridian House International and a former United States envoy to Saudi Arabia.
The Jan. 15 date set by UN resolution has provided Saddam Hussein a breathing space as well as a deadline, and he may be waiting until the last minute to make some sort of final initiative of his own. ``I'd be surprised if he didn't,'' says Ambassador Cutler.
If Iraq does make a last-minute offer, the question will be: Is it real, or is it a dodge meant to delay the outcome of the crisis further?
Foreign Minister Aziz implied that Iraq knows President Bush is serious about the use of force. But Saddam Hussein may have decided that going to war is his best option. His calculation could be that he can hold out long enough to send casualties soaring and sour the multinational alliance on the whole venture.
``I can't misrepresent this to the American people,'' said President Bush on Wednesday. ``I am discouraged.''
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said Wednesday he might ask President Bush to declare a national emergency that would authorize activation of up to 1 million part-time military reservists in the Persian Gulf crisis. Bush earlier Wednesday issued an executive order that would give the US military first call on food, energy, transportation, and other essentials in the event of war in the Gulf.
To this point, according to US analysts, Iraq has given no sign that it is simply looking for a way to disguise the defeat of a withdrawal from Kuwait. ``The elements of a fig leaf for Iraq have always been present, if it wanted to use them,'' says Ambassador Donald McHenry, former US envoy to the UN.
If Iraq wanted a way out it is likely that Mr. Aziz would have used softer language in Geneva about the key issue of linking a solution of the Gulf crisis to the situation in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.
US officials have rejected this ``linkage.'' Among other things, they charge that Saddam isn't serious about it, and just wants to drag in an issue capable of delaying the resolution of the Gulf crisis beyond the point where the UN coalition can hold together. Aziz's rhetoric in Geneva seemed to bear out this point of view, say private US analysts.
If Aziz had said, or even hinted, that Iraq would withdraw from Kuwait if the UN agreed to host an international conference that would consider all Middle East problems, including the Palestinian question, cracks in the anti-Iraq coalition could have developed into wide fissures. Some European nations, primarily France, have proposed just such a meeting as a compromise. US officials have opposed a conference in the context of the Gulf crisis, but have said in the past that at some point such a meeting might be useful.
But in response to a direct question on the matter, Aziz said that if the UN was ready to ``implement international legality'' Iraq would be ``very cooperative. Get Israel to comply with past UN resolutions calling for them to leave the occupied territories, Aziz was implying, and then we'll talk about Kuwait.
Given the intransigence and complexity of the Israeli-Arab situation, this seems simply an attempt by Saddam to cover his aggression, say US officials. ``I don't think that many people believe that Iraq invaded Kuwait to help the Palestinians,'' said Secretary Baker.
Though Baker was strikingly somber in his assessment of the Geneva meeting, he did urge that the head of the UN take up diplomatic efforts, and Secretary General P'erez de Cu'ellar was quick to oblige.
The European Community was also pursuing diplomacy, continuing to press for a meeting between Foreign Minister Aziz and EC officials in Algiers. But Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jacques Poos, current EC president, held out little hope that such a meeting would take place. ``Dialogue with the Iraqis is impossible,'' he said.
France said it would continue to search for a peaceful solution on its own, and nations from Thailand to China called for further attempts at negotiation to head off war.