BAGHDAD -- In accepting President Bush's offer to send Secretary of State James Baker to Geneva to meet with Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, Iraq feels it must get a clear signal that Washington is willing to talk with Baghdad and not merely repeat demands to get out of Kuwait. Meanwhile, Iraq has some signals of its own. These may not be enough to ensure a peaceful solution to the Gulf crisis, but they could be the first indication that Saddam Hussein would rather talk than fight.
Based upon its reading of the American press and American public opinion, Iraq expects the Bush administration to do more than echo previous demands. It hopes -- without any firsthand knowledge -- that Baker has too much stature and is too close to Bush just to play long-distance messenger boy. The clear feeling in Baghdad is that if Baker is only going to reiterate American demands, he would be better off staying home.
At the moment, the government here probably does not know what sort of signal from Washington it is looking for -- only that it will know it when it sees it. At least initially, Baghdad is sticking to its position that the crisis over Kuwait cannot be dissociated from other regional problems -- Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Syria's presence in Lebanon. In a word, it wants both out.
But no longer does Iraq feel that the Kuwaiti crisis and regional issues have to be dealt with simultaneously. Instead, it is open for the first time to what in diplomatic jargon is known as "loose linkage." The problems of the region must be addressed, Iraq continues to feel, but not necessarily "solved" at the same time the Kuwait crisis is somehow resolved. Whatever the diplomatic term for the new Iraqi position, it comes down, I think, to this: a moderation of Iraq's initial demands.
Some of what Iraq continues to seek seems more wistful than realistic. For instance, if it is to give up its weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical weapons, it expects Israel to do the same. Israel, though, is generally assumed to have nuclear weapons, and Iraq has yet to develop any of its own. This is an offer Jerusalem can certainly afford to refuse.
At this stage of the game, Iraq does not expect that it and the United States will agree about everything -- initially, maybe not even much at all. But it does hope that the Baker-Aziz meeting will produce a favorable atmosphere that might in turn generate further talks. From Geneva, the talks could be moved to Baghdad (the Iraqi preference) and then to Washington, where Bush, Iraq feels, should become personally involved.
Still, the No. 1 issue appears unresolved: Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. The word "withdrawal" is one Iraq is reluctant to use. Instead, a special arrangement with Kuwait is mentioned, although Baghdad has yet to explain what that means. The word "arrangement" was used by Saddam Hussein in his Aug. 12 statement and never defined. Worse, it was linked to a host of unacceptable demands, including a you-go-first demand on Israel to withdraw first from the West Bank and Gaza Strip as well as from a slice of southern Lebanon.
What is clear here is the extent to which Iraq feels vilified and insulted by the United States and President Bush. The war of words has taken its toll. Iraq feels itself the victim of a conspiracy directed from Washington. It feels that it has been demonized and that its use of chemical weapons in its eight-year war against Iran has been exaggerated even in official Pentagon studies.
If, as someone said, God is in the details, then He might well be in the nuances as well. On paper, the new Iraqi position might not seem all that different from the one enunciated Aug. 12 by Saddam Hussein. That document asked for the Middle Eastern version of the kitchen sink -- "immediate and unconditional" Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, for instance -- and was roundly rejected by the Bush administration.
The difference now is that matter of "loose linkage" -- the chance for Iraq to claim something of a triumph while, certainly at first, nothing much changes. Nevertheless, what Iraq now seeks is assurances that America will do its best and that Washington's sincerity will not be subject to doubt in the Arab world. To that end, it is known to want guarantees from the U.N. Security Council that the regional package it seeks will be implemented.
Much of what Iraq is known to seek remains unacceptable to the Bush administration and some of its key Arab allies. But overall Iraq seems to have moderated its policy a bit. Still, its bottom line remains known only to Saddam Hussein, who, if guesses are allowed, thinks he must come out of this crisis as the unchallenged champion of the Palestinian cause and the titular leader of the Arab world. To the chagrin of some moderate and conservative Arabs (some of them American allies), if he can get just a piece of what he's seeking, he might well do it.