THE UN Security Council is preparing to meet to evaluate Iraq's response to the Soviet peace proposal as soon as the response is known. At press time, indications were that Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz would return to Moscow today. Diplomats at the UN appeared unperturbed by President Bush's comment that the Soviet plan fell far short of what was required. They did not regard the remark as a rejection, several said.
But the diplomats confirm that, while no deadline has been set for an Iraqi response, neither has the US given any guarantee that a ground war would not begin this week.
Soviet Ambassador Yuli Vorontsov told the Council on Tuesday that ``the key element of the plan consists in securing a rapid start of a withdrawal of the Iraqi forces from Kuwait, which would allow for an immediate end to bloodshed.''
UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar, who was given a confidential letter outlining the Soviet plan, said that Iraq faced ``a historic opportunity to avoid a ground offensive.''
To end the war, all Saddam has to do now is accept the resolutions on Kuwait and begin a withdrawal. Once ground troops have engaged, however, a surrender would be required.
Thus, for Iraq, what's at stake is a possible loss of sovereignty. If Iraq were occupied, Saddam would also likely face a Nuremberg-style trial as a war criminal - a scenario discussed during the drafting of the UN resolutions establishing Iraq's liability for damages.
Resolution 660, which Iraq indicated it would accept last Friday, calls for Iraqi withdrawal to positions occupied on Aug. 1. But the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border is still a contentious issue.
In a transcript of the meeting between Saddam and the UN Secretary-General on Jan. 14, the Iraqi leader asserted that Kuwait had moved the border northward several times in the past century - most recently during the Iran-Iraq war when, he said, Kuwait ``further advanced in the land to exploit [Iraq's Rumallah] oil fields.''
Last fall, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, Kuwait's foreign minister, said that before Iraq's invasion it had been holding Kuwaiti territory - including the two strategic islands of Warbah and Bubiyan - which had been turned over to its use during the Iran-Iraq war, but not returned.
Iraqi diplomats say no border agreement was ever ratified. Mohammad Abulhasan, Kuwait's UN ambassador says there was a border agreement signed in 1963 by Iraqi President Ahmad al-Bakr and deposited with the UN.
Meanwhile, UN officials report that contingency planning is under way for peacekeeping possibilities. A senior official said that as many as 6,000 UN troops could arrive in the area within 48 hours. They could perform a number of roles, including:
Supervising Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait.
Stabilizing the situation inside Kuwait after withdrawal.
Patrolling the border-area cease-fire lines.
Helping with refugees.
Providing humanitarian and medical aid.