Still Searching For A Way To Avoid War

Is Saddam Hussein looking for a peaceful way out of his standoff with tine: west? One man who thinks so is King Hussein of Jordan, who may: understand the Iraqi leader better than most. Alone among leaders leaders, the king took Saddam's: talk of a stike on Kuwait seriously before the: invasion. He knew Saddam wasn't the king to bluff. Now, the king says, Saddam is searching for a way to avoid war. "There's a very, very clear wish for a peaceful solution to the problem," the king told NEWSWEEK.

Or at least that is what his best information--and his instincts--tell him. Burned: by his initial efforts to act as a broker between the West and Iraq, Hussein hasn't met with Saddam for about two months, even as the Iraqi leader received a stream of envoys from Europe, Japan and the Soviet Union. But through constant contacts with Iraqi officials, the Jordanian leader says he detects a degree of flexibility that still is not reflected in the: Iraqi government's official pronouncements. "Given the opportunity," he says, the Iraqis would pull out of most of Kuwait--though exactly: how far they would withdraw would have to be determined at "the Arab level.'? Saddam still wants access to the gulf and agreement with Kuwait on oil and aid.

Baghdad is also playing down its insistence on "linkage" between a pullout from Kuwait and an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. Instead, says the king, Saddam might settle for a general commitment by the West to address the Arabs' long-festering? grievance over Palestine.

On other issues, however Saddam wants guarantees. Faced with the burgeoning American and allied presence in the region, and President George Bush's talk of preparation for "offensive" actions, Saddam will ask for a promise that if he does withdraw from Kuwait and release the hostages, he will not be blockaded and attacked afterward. Saddam is willing to talk peace, not surrender.

In his more optimistic moments, King Hussein suggests negotiations over Kuwait could eventually lead to more extensive talks. He believes Iraq is willing to negotiate the reduction or elimination of its most fearsome arsenals as part of an effort to "remove weapons of mass destruction--be they chemical, bacteriological nuclear--from a region that spans an area from Iran to the Atlantic, including Israel and Iraq."

So far, the king does't see much progress in the direction of negotiation. He seems not to know of any back channel talks between Washington and Baghdad, nor of any signals that may have been sent via one of the many emissaries that have paraded to Baghdad. "What is missing," he says, is the creation of "bridges for dialogue, bridges for a resolution of this problem."

Of course it's possible that Jordan's monarch is simply out of the loop. The Saudis and Egyptians are openly hostile to him, and Washington doesn't appear to be in much of a mood to let him in on its secrets. Nor have the Iraqis exactly been helpful of late. For months the king has tried to get Saddam to accept publicly "the principle of withdrawal," a position to which the French say they would be responsive. But the day the king arrived in Paris last week for conversations with President Francois Mitterrand, Iraq's information minister told the press in Baghdad "we will never go out of Kuwait, ever."

"That was an unfortunate statement," says the exasperated monarch, blaming Baghdad's "minimal" contact with the outside for its "many misunderstandings of the mood of the world, of how to approach the world." The British educated king says he is trying to explain each side to the other--"fighting," as he puts it, "to keep hope alive." It is, to say the least, an uphill battle.