Iraqi President Saddam Hussein yesterday sent an urgent message to President Bush through the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad expressing Iraq's desire to end the crisis in the Persian Gulf peacefully and avoid a confrontation with the United States, according to administration officials.

The Iraqi president, who deployed 30,000 troops to his border with Kuwait last weekend in anger over low oil prices and high production, has pledged to Washington that "nothing will happen" militarily for the duration of a mediation effort that begins this weekend, the officials said. Saddam Hussein said that after an initial mediation session in Saudi Arabia, the talks would move to Baghdad, where Kuwait's crown prince will represent the sheikdom's ruling family in direct negotiations with Iraqi officials.

However, neither Egyptian nor Saudi officials, under whose auspices the mediation is taking place, mentioned in their public statements yesterday that the venue for the talks would move to the Iraqi capital.

The Iraqi message was conveyed yesterday morning when Saddam Hussein summoned U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie for a rare audience. During it, Saddam Hussein said he felt "betrayed" that U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf had been deployed for short-notice maneuvers intended, U.S. officials said, to head off Iraqi aggression toward its much smaller neighbor.

Saddam Hussein told Glaspie that there was no need for a U.S. military response and that he did not understand it. "We don't want war. We hate war, we know what war does," Saddam Hussein said, according to sources familiar with Glaspie's report. Saddam Hussein, in what one official described as a "breast-beating" rendition of his grievances against Kuwait and Iraq's economic plight, said his country did not have enough money to house all the children orphaned during Iraq's eight-year war with Iran.

In the meeting, Saddam Hussein professed that his dispute with Kuwait was a "family" matter between Arabs and he sought to allay U.S. concerns that American interests were at stake, according to the sources.

His central theme in the message to Bush, officials said, was his desire to pacify the crisis that erupted when Iraq accused Kuwait of stealing oil from a shared production field and threatened military force if Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) continued to disregard oil production quotas in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

"He very, very much wants to avoid a problem with us," one administration official said.

Glaspie's meeting with Saddam Hussein was called on such short notice that she was not able to confer with senior U.S. officials about the tone of her message, but one administration official said Glaspie challenged Saddam Hussein's use of military intimidation against his Arab neighbors in what is essentially an economic and political dispute.

The U.S. envoy apparently got no specific explanation from Saddam Hussein about why he sent troops to the border, but was subjected instead to a "diatribe" about alleged Kuwaiti wrongs. Glaspie requested that Iraq's propaganda attacks against Kuwait cease, and one U.S. official said later that Baghdad radio and television had stopped airing the attacks by midday yesterday.

Saddam Hussein's sudden message to Washington followed a tense military buildup in the gulf. Iraq now has more than 30,000 troops on the Kuwaiti border with ammunition and supplies for 30 days of combat, U.S. officials said yesterday. Kuwait has mobilized its 20,000-man military.

Meanwhile, two U.S. warships are steaming in the waters off Kuwait to establish an American naval "presence" in the northern gulf, U.S. officials said. One was the USS LaSalle, flagship of the Joint Task Force Middle East. Four other U.S. warships were maneuvering in the southern gulf with military aircraft from the UAE in the first joint exercise ever requested and approved by that government.

One sign of the jitters in the region was that UAE officials yesterday denied they were cooperating with the United States.

Administration officials yesterday expressed the hope that Saddam Hussein's message to Bush marked the beginning of the end of a crisis that caught the West by surprise and triggered a debate within the administration on the extent of its commitments in the Persian Gulf.

Some officials asserted yesterday that an Iraqi attack on Kuwait would not draw a U.S. military response, but the United States would join in condemning such a move and would work diplomatically to force Iraq's withdrawal.

The U.S. Central Command, which responds to crises in the Middle East, was said by officials to have pushed for a strong U.S. show of force after the Iraqi troop buildup. But officials in the State Department, White House and higher levels of the Pentagon cautioned that the United States should protect the free flow of oil and commerce through the waterway and avoid getting drawn into a military commitment to defend Kuwait.

One official asserted that since the prevailing administration view was that Saddam Hussein was bullying Kuwait and had no intention of invasion, it would have been unwise to draw a "red line," the crossing of which would provoke a U.S. military response.

By deploying limited U.S. naval forces in the gulf for emergency maneuvers, the official said, the United States demonstrated that it was willing to confront Iraq if the escalation went too far.

Staff writer David Hoffman contributed to this report.

Kuwait:

20,300men under arms, 275 tanks, 60 pieces towed artillery, 36 pieces support artillery, 36 combat aircraft and 18 armed helicopters.

Iraq:

Iraq has accussed Kuwait of stealiing its oil and conspiring to drive down prices on the world market. Saturday it moved 30,000 troops to the border with Kuwait.

One million men under arms, 5,500 tanks, 3,000 pieces towed artillery, 500 pieces support artillery, 160 helicopters, 513 combat aircraft, unknown quantities of long-and medium-range surface-to-surface missiles.

United Arab Emirates:

43,000 servicemen, 131 main battle tanks, 76 light tanks, about 90 pieces towed artillery, 20 pieces support artillery, 61 combat aircraft, 19 armed helicopters.

United States

Tuesday the Pentagon announced that the U.S. fleet and tanker aircraft in the Persian Gulf are holding a "short-notice exercise" with air forces from the United Arab Emirates, another state threatenedby Iraq.

Joint Task Force Middle East consists of the flagship USS La Salle, one destroyer and four frigates. The U.S. Navy maintains a small facility on Bahrain.

SOURCE: The Military Balance, 1989-1990 edition