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Kremlin Expresses Regret That Bush, Allies Didn’t Accept Peace Plan

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As U.S.-led forces pressed their land offensive against Iraq, the Soviet Union voiced regret Sunday that President Bush and other leaders of the anti-Baghdad coalition had yielded to their “instinct” to use military force rather than accept a Kremlin-brokered plan for peace.

In an official statement that ended a week of feverish Kremlin diplomatic activity, the Soviet government said that it is still not too late to negotiate a settlement to the Persian Gulf War, even as allied forces drive into Iraqi-occupied Kuwait. It called for immediate consultations at the United Nations.

The Soviet criticism, however, was tempered by the obvious priority given by the Kremlin to maintaining good ties with the United States and not squandering gains achieved in the superpowers’ relationship in recent years.

Moscow-based journalists were summoned to hear Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Vitaly I. Churkin read a statement expressing his government’s regret at the turn of events.

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“The instinct to rely on a military solution prevailed, despite the fact that Iraq’s agreement to withdraw its forces from Kuwait in keeping with U.N. Security Council Resolution No. 660 had created a fundamentally new situation, clearing the way for transferring the Gulf conflict to the footing of a political settlement,” the statement said.

Those words were a rebuke directed at President Bush and other leaders of the anti-Iraq coalition, who had rejected a peace plan negotiated by Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and agreed to by Iraq’s leadership on Friday.

That plan pledged Baghdad to withdraw its forces from Kuwait “unconditionally” but then listed several conditions about which Bush voiced “serious concern,” saying that the proposal fell far short of demands on Iraq contained in a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions on the Gulf crisis.

The Kremlin maintained Sunday that the Soviet-Iraqi plan had in fact cleared the way “to transferring the Gulf conflict to the footing of a political settlement.”

“The Soviet Union expresses regret that a most realistic chance to secure a peaceful outcome of the conflict and achieve the goals set by U.N. Security Council resolutions without further casualties and destruction has been passed up,” the government statement said.

“The differences between the formulas accepted by Iraq and proposals by a number of other countries were not too wide and lend themselves to resolution within the Security Council framework within a day or two,” it said, evidently referring to the general terms of Bush’s Friday ultimatum to Kuwait to get out of Iraq by noon EST Saturday or face a ground war with the allies.

“It is still not too late to do this,” the Soviet statement continued. “The Security Council, which is now in session, should get down to examining without delay the situation that has taken shape.”

Churkin took no questions from reporters and made no additional comments, but on Saturday night, Gorbachev’s personal spokesman Vitaly N. Ignatenko took pains to dispel fears that the Kremlin might side with the Iraqis, once one of the Soviets’ chief allies and arms customers in the Arab world, or might try to undercut the allies with more solo diplomatic initiatives.

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“The attitude of the Soviet Union toward the United States will not change,” Ignatenko vowed.

“Our relations have a firm base and they create an important strategic background, and we must not destroy this background. This includes not only the relations between our countries but the relations between our presidents as well,” he said.

Offering what turned out to be a preview of the Kremlin’s reaction to the outbreak of ground hostilities, Ignatenko said: “We will not express our censure, but only regret that the world today has proven to be incapable of solving this problem by peaceful means. . . . We know that the Iraqi regime was the aggressor.”

Ignatenko’s jarring use of the word regime-- a pejorative label in the Russian language used to denote dictatorships or puppet states--left no doubt that not much sympathy remains in the highest echelons of the Soviet government for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

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As if to assure the Bush Administration and its coalition partners that Moscow would not be trying to make deals behind their backs, Ignatenko said Saturday that “naturally, there will be no further contacts between us and the Iraqi side.”

According to Churkin, Gorbachev spoke by telephone Saturday to Bush and to the leaders of Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, Syria, Egypt and Iran to try to keep the Persian Gulf War from erupting into a ground conflict.

Those contacts, and the Kremlin’s call Sunday for renewed U.N. action, apparently were the final Soviet moves in a drive to find a diplomatic settlement to the Persian Gulf crisis--a drive that began in earnest Feb. 18, when Gorbachev offered his proposals for a negotiated peace to visiting Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz.

Soviet newspapers do not publish on Sunday, so there was no immediate press comment on the war’s escalation.

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