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U.S. Denies It’s Easing Terms for Ending War

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The U.S.-Soviet statement proposing a Persian Gulf cease-fire if Iraq promises to pull out of Kuwait was intended as a gesture to keep Moscow from drifting away from the anti-Iraq coalition and not a softening of previous demands for total withdrawal, Bush Administration officials said Wednesday.

The statement, issued Tuesday evening after four days of U.S.-Soviet talks, said the allied assault on Iraq could end now if Saddam Hussein makes an “unequivocal commitment to withdraw from Kuwait” followed by “immediate, concrete steps” to carry out that promise.

Administration officials insisted Wednesday that those terms were no different from President Bush’s previous position that Hussein must withdraw all his forces from Kuwait to end the war. “There’s no change in policy,” said White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater.

But Soviet and Arab diplomats said they considered the U.S.-Soviet statement important because it implicitly endorsed Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s efforts to persuade Hussein to accept an early cease-fire in the war.

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The tangled saga of the U.S.-Soviet statement has become perhaps the messiest hand-to-hand battle on a somewhat neglected front of the Persian Gulf War: international diplomacy.

Even as the allied air forces have filled the skies over Iraq, Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III have been fighting for two diplomatic aims: to fend off unwanted proposals for negotiations with Iraq, and to keep the 28-nation coalition against Iraq in one piece. So far, officials acknowledged, staving off cease-fire ideas from unfriendly countries has been easier than keeping friendly countries happy.

Third World countries from Algeria to India have tried to generate interest in the United Nations Security Council for various compromise proposals, but all have crashed into a stone wall of Iraqi indifference while being simultaneously shot down by the United States and its allies. “We can’t get anywhere,” a Yemeni diplomat said mournfully.

More complex has been the problem of mollifying America’s many allies, each with its own interests--from Israel, which wants to retaliate against Iraqi missile attacks, to Egypt, which wants Bush to get tougher toward Israel, to the Soviet Union, which wants to play a major role in the Middle East while remaining friendly with both sides.

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This week’s U.S.-Soviet meetings were a case in point. U.S. and Arab diplomats said the new Soviet foreign minister, Alexander A. Bessmertnykh, came to Washington seeking two things on the Gulf issue. One was a strong joint statement promising that the United States would not seek the conquest of Iraq and pledging “to avoid further escalation of the war"--to defuse criticism from Soviet conservatives and Arab allies. The other was U.S. agreement to several still-undisclosed ideas offered by Gorbachev to seek an early end to the war.

“I brought some ideas, but they were not a grand plan,” Bessmertnykh said. “It’s practical ideas about how to move forward in solving the Gulf problem and promoting the Middle East solution.”

American officials refused to reveal any details of the Soviet proposals. But U.S. and Arab diplomats said they have been told that the Soviet Embassy in Baghdad--one of the few still functioning in the Iraqi capital--will now take the new language of the U.S.-Soviet statement to Saddam Hussein to see if he is interested in a truce on its terms.

A senior Arab official praised that initiative as “a new option” for peace, but warned that Hussein is unlikely to agree to it.

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The release of the joint statement caused a half-day of confusion within the Administration after Baker aides, clearly underestimating the impact that a U.S.-Soviet policy declaration on the Gulf War would have, distributed copies of the text without letting anyone else see it first.

Baker’s spokeswoman, Margaret Tutwiler, noted with astonishment that she had not known of the statement’s existence until after it was issued to reporters. Even President Bush was taken by surprise, aides said.

Even worse, some White House aides grumbled, the declaration was issued less than two hours before Bush’s State of the Union address--a time when the White House wants public attention riveted on the President’s speech and nothing else.

A reporter asked Bush’s national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, about the statement about an hour before the speech. Scowcroft, who unlike the reporter had not yet seen the text, looked properly nonplussed. Bush did not get a copy until he was in his limousine on the way to the Capitol, about an hour after it was handed out to reporters at the State Department door.

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Nevertheless, on Wednesday morning, Bush endorsed the statement and betrayed no pique at Baker’s faux pas. Asked by a reporter if he was “mad at Secretary Baker,” Bush laughed and said, “There are no differences there.”

Some U.S. officials blamed Bessmertnykh for the foul-up, saying he had pushed to release the statement. One official said Bessmertnykh, who became Soviet foreign minister only two weeks ago, wanted to “make a mark” after his first major meeting and sought to demonstrate that Moscow still has a major role in the Middle East.

U.S. officials said Bessmertnykh proposed issuing the joint statement, with Baker agreeing because it was an opportunity to bring the two countries’ policies on the Gulf into harmony.

Before he left Moscow last week, the Soviet foreign minister expressed concern that the U.S.-led offensive against Iraq appeared to be escalating beyond its original U.N.-sanctioned goal of forcing Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait.

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State Department officials took that as a veiled warning that the Soviet Union might ease itself out of the coalition if its concerns were not addressed.

“They have their own interests in the area,” a senior State Department official said bluntly. “They have five Muslim republics. They have good relations with a lot of Arab countries. They want to keep both.”

Baker agreed to the joint statement, Tutwiler said, “to put to rest any concerns that somehow the Soviets were somehow retreating from their positions on the Gulf crisis. . . . There is absolutely no gap between the United States and the Soviet Union concerning the Gulf.”

Like Fitzwater, she insisted that the statement’s major elements--a proposed cease-fire if Hussein promises to withdraw and a commitment to U.S.-Soviet efforts to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians--were “no different” than earlier U.S. policy statements.

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Other diplomats, however, said that while the policies themselves were not new, their presence next to each other in a single U.S.-Soviet statement put them in a new--and, to some, significant--form.

Jacques Andreani, France’s ambassador to the United States, said the statement implied a “linkage” between Iraqi withdrawal and Arab-Israeli peace efforts--something the Administration has consistently rejected.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir reacted with alarm to the statement, saying it affected “our fate, our future, without consulting us.” Baker spent almost an hour with Israeli Ambassador Zalman Shoval in Washington on Wednesday trying to calm Israel’s fears.


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