IN the fifth week of the Persian Gulf war the American-led coalition fought a military battle with bullets and bombs, while Iraq waged a political fight with words, TV images, and diplomatic maneuver. As of this writing it was not clear whether the sixth week of the war would begin with an allied ground offensive or negotiations for an Iraqi pullout. But political strategy may be the only card Iraq has left, as coalition commanders are increasingly confident of their ability to oust President Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in relatively short order.
To this point, Iraq's military has done nothing but bluster and hide, aside from the brief strike at the Saudi town of Khafji.
``It was going to be `the mother of all battles', and `the sand would run red with blood,' et cetera. And none of that's come to pass,'' said Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, operations chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Iraq's political offensive might be said to have begun with the bombing of the Baghdad bomb shelter last week. United States spokesmen insisted the shelter was a legitimate military target and hinted that Saddam may have placed civilians there on purpose as sacrificial lambs.
Whatever the truth of the matter, it was clear that at least some civilians had died in the bombing. Gruesome TV pictures of bodies and weeping relatives were the best ammunition yet for Saddam's effort to portray the US bombing of his country as indiscriminate and cruel.
For the most part, world reaction to the bombing followed predictable lines. Nations aligned with the US denounced Saddam as a cynic capable of sacrificing his own countrymen; Arab nations friendly to Iraq called for an immediate end to the bombing.
But the key target of the Iraqi campaign may have been the Soviet Union. The Soviets were already beginning to play an independent role in the Gulf crisis, as evidenced by special envoy Yevgeny Primakov's trip to Baghdad. After the bombing, government-controlled newspapers were critical of the US-led coalition - Izvestia, for instance, editorialized that the Soviet Union now needed to ``distance itself from the actions of Washington.''
Then came the next political blow: Iraq's surprise offer of last Friday to withdraw from Kuwait, with conditions. After an initial breakfast-time burst of euphoria in the US, it quickly became apparent that the offer contained ``ifs'' the Bush administration would not accept.
A Soviet spokesman also eventually termed the Iraqi offer unacceptable - but added that it might be a promising beginning toward a negotiated pullout.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, in Moscow on Tuesday, received the detailed personal plan from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for a Gulf political settlement.
Though President Bush quickly criticized the Gorbachev proposals as ``well short of what would be required'' to end the Gulf war, it presented him with a thorny political problem.
Details of the plan were not officially disclosed, although The Times of London published what it termed a description of the proposals disclosed by the Soviet ambassador to Britain. (See story, this page.)
The Times report aside, the Soviet plan was thought to call for an immediate Iraqi pullout from Kuwait in return for a guarantee of Saddam's personal safety and the integrity of Iraq's borders.
It was also thought to promise lifting of economic sanctions and discussion, at some point, of the Israeli-Palestinian problem.
Thus, the proposal would accomplish the freeing of Kuwait, with what many nations might consider reasonable trade-offs. Italy, part of the allied coalition confronting Iraq, endorsed the plan on Feb. 20.
As of this writing Iraq had not responded officially to the Gorbachev plan. If Saddam accepts it as is, Bush may have to go along. But administration officials have long said that they want no solution to the Gulf crisis which allows Saddam to save face. And after six weeks of bombing, the military side of the coalition effort appears to be going well. ``The United States and its coalition are poised to achieve victory,''
Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana said in a TV interview Wednesday that acceptance of the Soviet proposal would leave Saddam with his authority intact and his army intact. ``That would be a historic mistake,'' Senator Lugar said. But the destruction of Iraqi military power would go beyond the mandate of UN resolutions, and thus the Bush administration's goals in the Gulf remain ambiguous.
Real war continues
But even as political maneuvering reached a decision point, the real war continued, with a ground offensive possible at any moment. ``They can go right now. They can go two weeks from now,'' said Brig. Gen. Richard Neal, deputy director of operations for the US Central Command.
Wednesday, in one of the largest skirmishes with Iraqi troops to date, US Apache helicopters destroyed 13 bunkers and took some 400 to 500 prisoners.