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Same Old Thing--or an Opening for Peace? : A bold move by Washington might force the situation

Was it a blink, or a hoax? Is it the beginning of the end, or just more of the same? Is Iraqi President Saddam Hussein at long last ready for peace, for compliance with United Nations resolutions and for withdrawal from Kuwait? Or is there to be more war, more death, more tragedy?

For an all-too-fleeting moment Friday, in the wake of Radio Baghdad’s announcement that the Iraqi government had in principle accepted United Nations Resolution 660, a surge of relief and even joy welled up around the world. People in Baghdad honked car horns and fired gunshots into the sky; foreign capitals buzzed with the hope that the hell of war was finally to be over. No doubt soldiers on both sides offered a prayer that it was true. Even the President of the United States admitted to a momentary feeling of elation.

THE FINE PRINT: But then the world examined all the fine print in Baghdad’s statement, and it was filled with condition upon condition and the usual grab-bag call for linkage to an overall settlement of Middle East problems, including Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. Before long, the clean air of hope and peace had gone out of Baghdad’s peace balloon and the world seemed back on the road to more war and destruction.

Saddam Hussein is frequently described by experts and associates as a smart, even brilliant, man. For a few minutes Friday it was almost possible to believe that. For if he were smart, he would get out of Kuwait while the getting’s good. It is now that simple. The United Nations coalition is going to win this war: Iraq will someday leave Kuwait. The only question is when?--and after what horrible and unnecessary cost.

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It is of course theoretically conceivable that what was tendered Friday was the initial phase of a sincere effort by Baghdad to end the war. Unacceptable in the form it was presented, absolutely; but nonetheless a small step forward, and away from, the glacial intransigence that has been the Iraqi position since Aug. 2. That possibility--however remote--should be enough to prompt President George Bush to announce a temporary, 48-hour pause in the fighting sometime very soon--perhaps during Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz’s meetings with top Soviet officials in Moscow this weekend, and of course before the long-awaited allied ground attack into Kuwait. Such a move could well reveal Baghdad’s true intent. No serious diplomatic initiative ever goes out over the radio; it must churn through the quieter channels of diplomacy. That could happen at the United Nations, in Paris, or in Moscow.

THE POINT OF A PAUSE: If in fact this is a turn in a different direction for Baghdad--however defiantly, arrogantly, ineptly launched--we should not get in the way. We should not squander the opportunity. A two-day pause in the fighting would give this minutely promising move whatever chance it has to burgeon into something the coalition can work with.

Such a pause, initially proposed by The Times in a Feb. 7 editorial, must be highly conditional, of course. It should not be extended without a strong and certain response by Iraq, and it should be terminated instantly if the Iraqis move one tank forward or send one more soldier south into Kuwait. The Iraqis cannot be trusted, but they can be watched. The pause should not serve to disadvantage the allied army.

It should work only to give peace a chance, shore up the U.N. coalition and assure Arabs and Muslims the world over that we are in control of our emotions, in control of our military, in control of our diplomacy and interested only in the achievement of Iraq’s withdrawal from a country that it had no right to invade, and which the world has every right to want to get back on its feet--and back into the hands of the Kuwaitis.

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