PALESTINE Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat has disclosed new information to back up an old, widely disputed charge that the costly war now raging in the Gulf could have been avoided had the United States encouraged negotiations between Kuwait and Iraq. One cause of the conflict is the failure of Kuwait and Iraq to settle longstanding disputes over two strategic islands in the Gulf and the Rumallah oilfield that straddles their border.
In an interview in the Tunisian capital where the PLO is headquartered, Mr. Arafat said the US thwarted last-minute efforts to reach a negotiated solution to these issues, setting the stage for a conflict he says will have no winners. ``What does this mean?'' asked Arafat. ``There is a force behind the curtain which still exists, pressing for escalation and not a resolution'' to the Gulf crisis.
Providing new details on the events surrounding the Kuwait invasion, Arafat said one of the first opportunities for a peaceful settlement was missed during an Arab summit in Baghdad in May 1990.
According to Arafat, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein offered to resolve the disputes by negotiating a mutually acceptable border with Kuwait. Since no Iraqi government has ever officially conceded Kuwait was not a part of Iraq, Saddam's offer would have been a historic acceptance given at the price of territorial concessions, Arafat said.
But Arafat says Kuwait was dissuaded from negotiating with Iraq by a message to the summit from Washington, transmitted through then-Arab League Secretary-General Chadli Klibi, that led Kuwait to believe it could rely instead on the force of US arms.
According to the US ``talking points,'' which were sent to Arab leaders on the eve of the summit, the US intended ``to maintain our naval presence in the Gulf for the foreseeable future.'' The US cautioned that it would ``be concerned if any summit resolution undercuts either the presence or the support we get for it.''
``It was not a memo. It was an ultimatum,'' said Arafat, who described himself as a ``historical witness'' to the events leading to the Gulf war.
``What happened after this was the implementation of a threat. The US was encouraging Kuwait not to offer any compromise, which meant there could be no negotiated solution to avoid the Gulf crisis.''
US officials deny any connection between the talking points and Kuwait's dealings with Iraq.
Continuing his chronology of ``missed opportunities,'' Arafat said he was the last Arab leader to visit Iraq and Kuwait before Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion. On July 29, he told the emir of Kuwait to be flexible.
``I told the emir not to say no, that if there was any misunderstanding to give it to an Arab commission. My main point was don't break the political dialogue, keep it going.'' Arafat renewed his appeal to the emir the next day at a mini-summit of four Arab leaders in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. But the Kuwaitis refused.
Immediately after the Aug. 2 invasion, Arafat pressed for a last minute compromise in talks with Saddam and Saudi King Fahd, who, Arafat says, agreed to a settlement that would leave the two islands and the Rumallah oil field in Iraqi hands.
Later, the PLO chairman says, he was dispatched to Baghdad by Arab leaders to convince Iraq to attend an emergency Arab summit in Cairo, even though Kuwait had already been annexed.
Before the official opening of the summit, which took place on Aug. 9 and 10, the Arab leaders agreed informally to dispatch a mediating team composed of several Arab leaders to Baghdad, a device frequently used to settle inter-Arab disputes.
According to Arafat, no formal vote was taken on the matter but no representative, including the emir of Kuwait, dissented.
At the meeting, Algerian President Chadli Benjedid received repeated assurances from the Iraqi delegation headed by Frist Deputy Prime Minister Taha Yasin Ramadan that Iraq would still withdraw from Kuwait if the Arab commission came up with a satisfactory compromise, said Arafat.
But plans to send an Arab commission were ``torpedoed'' by an Egyptian resolution condemning the invasion and inviting Western forces to Saudi Arabia to help liberate Kuwait. The vote split the Arab League, with 12 nations supporting and nine - including the PLO, which had ``reservations'' - opposing. After the vote, Arafat recounts: ``I asked Kuwait: Are you in need of a resolution or a solution? I am offering the solution for you through this commission. They said no. They said that in a matter of days the Americans will solve the problem.''
``All efforts to make a dialogue were torpedoed,'' Arafat said. ``The US wanted the summit to sanction foreign troops. It wanted cover for military intervention. If the US had supported negotiations in the first place, Saddam might not have invaded Kuwait. If Kuwait had not said no'' to the final Iraqi offer made in Jiddah on Aug. 1, Arafat says Saddam told him, ``things might have been different.''
According to Arafat, Saddam's final decision to seize all of Kuwait was based on fears that US troops would do in 1991 what British troops did in 1961, the year Kuwait became independent. Called in by Kuwait because of a threat from Iraq, the British adjusted the border northward, says Arafat, costing Iraq access to oil fields, including part of Rumallah. British Foreign Office sources in London dispute this version of events.
Many Western officials and analysts doubt that Saddam had any serious intention of compromising with Kuwait, and many question Arafat's credentials as an impartial judge of events leading to the war. While technically neutral, the PLO has refused to condemn the Iraqi invasion. Rather, senior PLO leaders, including Arafat, have demonstrated solidarity with Saddam.
A PLO peace plan calls for the phased withdrawal of Iraqi troops from all but the disputed areas of Kuwait. Under the proposal, Arab forces would replace Iraqi troops in Kuwait, while all foreign forces would be withdrawn from the Gulf area.
In the interview, the PLO chairman also said that the idea of linking settlement of the Kuwait and Palestinian issues originated with Palestinian leaders in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Arafat said he received a message from the territories proposing linkage on Aug. 9, which he transmitted to Saddam immediately after the Cairo summit. Saddam seized on the idea, which became the centerpiece of an Aug. 12 Iraqi peace proposal that solidified Palestinian support for him.
In other comments, the PLO chairman said that Iraqi missile attacks on Israel have proved that a settlement with Palestinians, not geography, is the basis of peace.
``It proves that Israel's security can't be protected by the Jordan River,'' Arafat said. ``The argument that Israel needs the West Bank and Gaza to protect its security has tumbled down. It's only a political solution that will bring security.''
``What Israel has been feeling the last 14 days is something the Palestinians have been feeling for the last 40 years,'' Arafat said. ``Maybe this will awaken the Israelis that peace and not military dominance is the solution to the problem.''