ON the eve of the United Nations Security Council deadline for an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, Baghdad is demonstrating unwavering - and potentially suicidal - defiance despite a last minute spate of diplomacy by UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar and other European leaders. At a meeting with Iraqi journalists late Sunday night, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein said that the government's policy on Kuwait was nonnegotiable, denying previous speculation and reports that Iraq will be ready to withdraw from Kuwait in return for progress towards solving the Palestinian problem.
``We want all of our rights.... We are not ready to swap one of our rights for another,'' he said in a reference to Iraqi claims that Kuwait was part of Iraq.
Iraq's parliament voted yesterday to fight to hold onto Kuwait in a move tantamount to a declaration of war as a grim UN Secretary-General emerged empty-handed from talks with Saddam Hussein.
Iraq ``has resolved to fight,'' Speaker Saadi Mahdi Saleh told parliament with less than 48 hours remaining until a UN resolution authorizing force against Iraq was to take effect.
Senior Arab diplomats said that Saddam's hard-line rhetoric meant that so far he has not received an offer by the United Nations or Europe that Iraq could consider.
``So far the Iraqis feel that the gist of all offers have been for Baghdad to capitulate rather than to negotiate,'' said a senior Arab diplomat who has been in touch with the Iraqi leadership in the last 24 hours.
``We prefer war to capitulation,'' is the line repeated by several senior Iraqi officials here.
In the Iraqi view, Washington is still trying through military threats and political pressures - direct and indirect - to force Iraq to accept what is viewed here ``as a master-slave relationship''.
``The US President considers himself the master of the world giving orders to the Iraqis,'' said Naji Hadithi, a senior Iraqi information official.
Over the last four days, Iraqi officials have been seeking to transform the Gulf crisis into a decisive confrontation to end what they see as ``American hegemony over the Arab world.''
Iraqi and some Arab officials insist that Saddam's argument has been picking up support among third world leaders.
Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda has just ended a visit to Baghdad seeking a solution to the crisis. And former Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra is here pressing an initiative by the nonaligned movement to implement all the United Nations' resolutions concerning the problems of the region.
Palestine Liberation Organization officials claim that they have received pledges by many African leaders to side with Iraq in case of war.
``PLO chairman [Yasser] Arafat has returned from a tour of Africa where many leaders told him that the current confrontation was their battle to end American hegemony,'' a PLO official said.
But despite the increasing war rhetoric, Arab officials and diplomats said that there was still a thin streak of hope. They said that although the UN Secretary-General did not bring any concrete offer to Iraq, for the first time he seemed ready seriously to consider Iraqi arguments.
Arab diplomats quoted United Nations sources saying that P'erez de Cu'ellar was encouraged by the ``serious and unprecedented special interest'' shown by President Bush in considering a solution to the Palestinian question, taking into account the implementation of Security Council resolutions concerning the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Iraqi and Arab diplomats here hope that if the United Nations deadline passes without an American assault, then peace efforts will pick up momentum, possibly triggering a serious diplomatic process.
Arab diplomats say that Italian Foreign Minister Gianni De Michelis has expressed interest in visiting Iraq.
According to Iraqi analysts, Saddam is trying to achieve three objectives by maintaining a hard line on the eve of the deadline:
To mobilize the Iraqi population and prepare them for war in the event of hostilities.
To pressure Europe to step up its diplomatic efforts and increase pressure on the US to negotiate with Iraq.
To force the US to address the Palestinian question.
Arab diplomats, however, note that Baghdad wants to enter negotiations on the basis of what Iraq sees as its legal rights in Kuwait.
``If Iraq concedes that it should withdraw from Kuwait on the basis of the UN resolutions without considering its legal rights there, that will weaken its negotiating position,'' said an Arab diplomat who has been living in Iraq for a long time.
Iraqi Information Minister Latif Nassif Jassim, who is believed to be the one taking the most hard-line stance in the current crisis, has vowed that Iraqi troops will stay in Kuwait forever.
``Our troops are there to stay forever. Kuwait is the 19th province of Iraq and there is no way that this will change. The issue of Kuwait is finished, he told The Monitor on Saturday evening.
But later on, as a small group of reporters sat with senior Iraqi information official Hadithi watching the US Congress vote on television, the official kept up his minister's hard line but stressed, ``The only logic we shall accept is international law.''
``But if we accept the implementation of some resolutions and leave the others unimplemented, then it will not be international law, but the selectivity the US insists upon. [It] might as well be called implementing anti-Iraqi laws rather than international laws,'' he said.
The official seemed undisturbed by the Congressional vote in favor of granting the US president powers to use force against Iraq.