WITH FORMATION of his own peace plan, Mikkhail Gorbachev bids to head off a ground war and become principal diplomatic arbiter of a Gulf peace. His move catches the United States in an uneasy place. Washington is eager to see its Soviet coalition partner help push Iraq to the right kind of unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait. But the combat has strengthened the war's own internal logic that wants Saddam Hussein, if not physically removed from power, at least politically and militarily miniaturized. Some talk of what they conceive of as a need for Saddam to "save face" and for the coalition to help him do so for the sake of arranging a deal. But the purpose of the coalition now must surely be to cause Saddam Hussein to lose face, not save it. So there is much discomfort at seeing Mr. Gorbachev shape a diplomatic process that, it is reported, assures the Iraqi leader he can stay on. The United States, which apparently was not consulted on the Gorbachev plan, surely cannot be bound by this feature of it -- or any other such compensations. That's not the only problem that arises from the Gorbachev initiative. Under pressure at home, he is asserting a strong Soviet interest in a crucial region only a few hundred miles from his border and acting to preempt any continuing large or dominant American role. He is doing this, moreover, in a fashion that lets him and his country cream off some of the political benefits of the military campaign organized and led by the United States and disproportionately fought by Americans. The Soviets are trying to become the agent and champion of the U.N. in reconstructing the Gulf, and this country is being portrayed, by implication, as just one of the heavies applying the muscle, being reduced in some way to one of the combatants among whom the Soviets must, with great detachment, mediate. It is not a fair or happy position. It also can create a strong pressure against the coalition's continuing to pursue the strategy and tactics needed to drive Saddam Hussein from Kuwait and remove him as a continuing military threat -- without providing the advantage of getting him to do so as a result of this Soviet-worked-up arrangement.

The allies have destroyed most of Iraq's special weapons facilities, reduced (but not rendered safe) its weapons arsenal, cut its military and industrial supply lines and otherwise at least diminished it as a regional threat for years to come. But a pause now while Iraq regroups or reconstructs itself or seeks the political advantage it might attain by propaganda and diplomatic manipulation should not be permitted. The Kremlin deserves a little time -- a very little time that affords Saddam Hussein no chance to evade or to tangle people up -- to arrange an unconditional, immediate, quick Iraqi pullout without the heavy weaponry. That done, a smashing success could be claimed in terms of the American interest and the U.N. mandate. The subsequent removal of Saddam Hussein would be, as Secretary of State James Baker said Sunday, "a very desirable result." Given the right kind of pullout, his ouster might naturally follow in Baghdad.

Unconditional, of course, still means unconditional. It is not clear yet just how encumbered the Soviet plan is with codicils and footnotes. So all that remains to be seen. As for the polite but real competition for prestige and postwar Gulf influence that is now beginning to touch Soviet-American relations, the element of cooperation exists as well. It is an element based on repelling Iraqi aggression. At the moment it requires and enables Soviet diplomacy to use the leverage derived from American military power to force Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait -- quickly, completely, without that heavy weaponry and without political compensation or guarantees.