A formal meeting of eight Persian Gulf states to discuss a joint emergency plan for the cleanup of a massive oil spill foundered today over the dispute between Iran and Iraq to call even a limited cease-fire in their 30-month war.
But Kuwaiti officials met informally throughout the day with Iranian and Iraqi delegates in an effort to find a mutually acceptable formula that would provide guarantees for the safety of experts who are standing by to cap the war-damaged wells. At least three wells in the Iranian Nowruz oil field are spewing 2,500 to 7,000 barrels a day into the gulf, threatening ecological disaster.
In New York, a United Nations spokeswoman said that a U.N. representative had left last night for Kuwait to join the talks, after Iran declared its willingness in principle to cooperate with the United Nations in the cleanup effort. He is Diego Cordovez, undersecretary general for special political affairs.
Iraqi Health Minister Sadik Alloush, who is leading his country's delegation, told reporters Iraq was ready to declare a cease-fire under U.N. supervision around the field.
"The idea of Iraq is that both sides stop firing in that area, just that limited area," he said, adding that the guarantees "must be from both sides" to make the repair and cleanup operation feasible. But Iran so far has vehemently rejected any formal cease-fire and said that all that is necessary is for Iraq to provide the guarantees unilaterally because it was Iraqi planes that attacked the wells causing the spill. Iran has said it had no intention of interfering with the cleanup operation.
Iranian officials have charged that Iraq is using the spill as a ploy to achieve a larger cease-fire in the war under international pressure.
"Iraq's goal is political," Iranian ambassador to Kuwait Ali Shams Ardakani said here.
The war and feud over a cease-fire have kept the newly founded gulf-wide Regional Organization for the Protection of Marine Environment for a month now from holding any meeting to deal with the oil spill.
In an apparent effort to placate Iraq, Kuwait's ruling emir, Sheik Jabir Ahmad Sabah, today dispatched an envoy to Moscow and Washington with a message calling on the superpowers to help bring the two warring gulf nations to the negotiating table.
A government spokesman, Abdul Aziz Hussein, said in an interview with an Abu Dhabi newspaper today that the emir was acting on behalf of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a grouping of six conservative Arab states led by Saudi Arabia, and was seeking international assistance to end the war.
The sending of the envoy, Rashid Rashid, undersecretary of the Kuwaiti Foreign Ministry, seemed to confirm the Iranian theory that Iraq hopes to use the crisis over the slick to generate international pressure on Iran to halt the fighting.
But the Iraqi delegation leader still talked about the need for a formal cease-fire by both sides and for U.N. involvement, while the Iranian side wants the operation supervised by the regional organization and also expected a formal apology from Iraq for attacking wells.
With both sides still putting forth, publicly at least, conditions known to be unacceptable to the other, it was far from clear whether any compromise could be struck allowing the operation to go ahead.
At least three, and possibly four, wells have to be repaired in the Nowruz field, which lies northwest of the Iranian oil terminal on Khark Island, about midway to Kuwait. Two of the wells were set afire by Iraqi missiles that attacked the field March 2.