Sheik Jabbar al Ahmed al Sabah, the ruler who fled Kuwait just ahead of Iraq's invasion seven months ago, announced Saturday that he has decided to return home this week and said he is firmly committed to moving his country toward democracy.
"Absolutely, we are agreed on that," the emir told reporters at the Sheraton Hotel here, where he has been in exile, in response to a question about democratization. "According to the constitution, we will walk that path."
The reporters came here with Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who met with the emir as part of a 10-day, seven-nation diplomatic mission in the Middle East and the Soviet Union.
Later Saturday, Baker became the first U.S. Cabinet official to visit Kuwait since it was liberated from Iraqi invaders. He spent three hours in Kuwait city in talks with Crown Prince Saad al Abdullah al Sabah and other officials, but he made no public appearances or comments during the visit.
Answering questions on politics here, Sheik Jabbar even suggested that he is willing to consider extending voting rights to Kuwaiti women, an audacious idea in the conservative Muslim Persian Gulf.
"It's not in the constitution so far," he said with a small smile, "but there is always a possibility to think about it in the future."
U.S. officials said they were encouraged by the emir's comments, which they called his strongest endorsement yet of a return to parliamentary rule.
Kuwait is the only Arab state on the Persian Gulf that has ever had a freely elected Parliament, although the emir suspended the assembly in 1986.
Now, in the wake of the seven-month Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, U.S. officials say they believe the ruling Sabah family--most of whom fled last year--will feel more pressure to democratize the regime, especially from those Kuwaitis who stayed behind to wage a small but brave resistance struggle.
"The leaders of the resistance are willing to give the royals a chance," a U.S. diplomat in Kuwait said, "but they'd better deliver."
Nevertheless, U.S. officials have been reticent to press the Kuwaitis on the issue, fearing that outside pressure might backfire. During his meeting with the emir Saturday, Baker told the ruler that he was glad to hear his new pledge and did not push the issue further, a senior U.S. official said.
At a longer meeting later in Kuwait city with Crown Prince Saad--who is running the emirate as military governor--the issue of democracy was never even mentioned, the official said.
The emir's comment was also the first official announcement of his plan to return home, although other Kuwaiti officials had talked hopefully of a return this week, before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins.
Asked why he had remained in exile at this Saudi mountain resort more than two weeks after U.S. and allied forces drove Iraq's army out of Kuwait, the emir said simply: "For private reasons."
Asked to elaborate, he replied, "I will leave it at that."
Some U.S. officials had privately expressed exasperation at the emir's reluctance to return and said that his absence--on top of his flight last August--could eventually call into question his fitness to stay on the throne.
Aides to Baker were visibly relieved that the ruler had finally set a rough date for his return.
During the long crisis over Iraq's occupation of Kuwait, some who visited the emir had described him as a distracted and frantic man, pacing the opulent rooms of his top-floor suite at the Sheraton Hotel and fretting over Cable News Network broadcasts.
But on Saturday, the Kuwaiti leader, a tall, frail-seeming figure, looked vigorous and healthy, smiling at questions from American reporters and answering in a low but steady voice while fiddling with the golden tassels on his robe.
A U.S. diplomat said the emir's commitment to democracy under Kuwait's current constitution is "a good sign. . . . It's a pretty good constitution."
The diplomat said some Kuwaiti officials have suggested that, if order is restored, elections could be held in time for the traditional opening of Parliament in October.
In Kuwait, Crown Prince Saad was asked about an election date, and he replied that the decision would depend on "the security and stability of the people of the country."
Among other issues under debate are whether the emir's ability to dissolve Parliament should be curtailed and whether voting rights should be extended beyond the current, limited electorate--literate male adults who can prove Kuwaiti ancestry before 1920, a stricture that has held voting to only about 10% of the population.
The idea of granting the vote to women was also broached last October, when a congress of Kuwaiti exiles met here to discuss their country's political future. The foreign minister, Sheik Sabah al Ahmed al Sabah, told the group that women should be brought into "real participation" in Kuwaiti political life.
Sabah grinned with apparent amusement as his older brother the emir was questioned on the issue by a woman reporter Saturday.
The U.S. ambassador to Kuwait, Edward W. (Skip) Gnehm, said he expects the emir to return home to "a great outpouring of love and affection."
"He remains an extremely popular figure," Gnehm said. "In all of the conversations that I have had with democrats and oppositionists, none of them talk about a revolutionary change of the system. They talk about the emir and a role he has to play."
Nevertheless, another American official, offering what he called a "purely personal opinion," predicted that the emir would probably abdicate within a year or so and hand the throne over to the crown prince, who is described as a more dynamic and forceful man.
Gnehm also said he is convinced that the Kuwaiti royal family is serious about moving toward democracy.
"You can all come and crucify me later if I am wrong, (but) I believe the government is committed to seeing that process move forward," he said.
Gnehm indicated that the United States would not object if Kuwait's form of democracy retained elements of the country's traditional patriarchal and tribal social organization. "We stand for the broadest possible participation of people in their government. But how it's organized, what they call it, how they do it--that's their business," he said.
After seeing the emir in Taif, Baker flew to Kuwait city and met with Crown Prince Saad, who is the ruler's cousin, prime minister and now military governor under the state of martial law that was declared last week.
Both the emir and the crown prince pressed Baker to take vigorous steps to help push Iraq's Saddam Hussein out of power, officials said.
"As long as Saddam is in power, I don't think the whole region will witness any sort of security and stability," the crown prince said.