DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES -- Amid growing calls for a diplomatic solution to the Persian Gulf crisis, attention is shifting to a decades-old issue that appears to stand in the way of any peaceful deal: Iraq's long-standing desire for a port at the northern end of the gulf through which it could import food, export oil and possibly project naval power.
The issue of Iraq's access to the gulf is widely seen as critical to any diplomatic solution, such as has been called for by the Soviet Union and some European leaders in recent days.
But there is little agreement among diplomats and Middle East specialists about how Iraq's maritime ambitions -- which helped trigger President Saddam Hussein's decision to attack Iran in 1980 and to invade Kuwait last month -- can be reconciled with the interests of the United States, Iran and the Arab gulf states.
All of these countries are likely to resist any negotiated settlement of the present crisis that would boost Iraq's maritime power, diplomats and Arab officials said. At the same time, Saddam appears unlikely to withdraw from Kuwait peacefully without some face-saving settlement that provides nearly landlocked Iraq with improved access to the gulf, these analysts said.
"The principal issue is of power in the gulf," said a senior Western diplomat. "It's dominated the region for centuries. And one of the greatest problems Iraq has had in trying to project its power in the gulf is its lack of naval access. They've been hamstrung."
Secretary of State James A. Baker III's remarks to a congressional committee Tuesday that Iraq's invasion of Kuwait might yield a new, long-term U.S.-Arab alliance in the gulf, including the presence of U.S. Navy forces, is one sign that the issue of Iraqi access to the gulf's sea lanes is likely to dominate diplomatic discussions in the weeks ahead.
Also, radical Arab leaders close to Saddam have suggested in remarks published in recent days that Iraq would consider a negotiated withdrawal from Kuwait if it were allowed to retain a border strip along the northern gulf as well as the Kuwaiti island of Bubiyan, which is near an Iraqi port on an inland waterway that has been undergoing a major expansion.
These apparent diplomatic trial balloons have been greeted unenthusiastically in the West. The United States and the United Nations have called for Iraq's unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait before any negotiations about Baghdad's access to the gulf or its dispute with Kuwait over oil drilling rights.
Nonetheless, many Arab officials have worked assiduously to keep their negotiating options open, with even exiled Kuwaiti officials suggesting that they might be willing to give Iraq the islands and port access it wants under the right conditions.
Iraq's economic and political vulnerability arising from its lack of access to the gulf has been obvious since the Kuwait invasion. The oil exports that generate nearly all of the country's wealth were easily shut down when Saudi Arabia and Turkey turned off overland pipelines. And Iraq has been unable to challenge the U.S.-led naval blockade in the gulf and the Red Sea because it lacks the ports to host a significant navy.
Saddam's attempts to remedy his country's situation with force have only exacerbated Iraq's maritime problems. In 1980, Iraq attacked Iran in an effort to win full control of the Shatt al Arab waterway on the northern gulf. After eight years of bloody fighting in which Iraq lost about 500,000 soldiers, a cease-fire left Iraq in control of the Shatt, but the waterway was clogged with sunken ships and war debris and its port facilities were unusable.
In an abrupt peace gesture after the Kuwait invasion, Saddam agreed to give back the eastern bank of the Shatt to Iran. He apparently believed that control of Kuwait's well-developed ports -- along with gulf channels leading to Iraqi ports under construction -- would provide Iraq with sufficient access to the gulf. But so far international sanctions and the naval blockade have left Kuwait's ports idle.
Some diplomats and analysts said that an eventual solution may lie in guaranteeing that Iraq's port of Umm Qasr, about 20 miles inland from the gulf's northern neck, be made more accessible to gulf shipping traffic. Since the cease-fire with Iran, Iraq has undertaken a major construction program to improve the port's facilities, and last January it hired a Dutch firm to dredge navigation channels so that big tankers and cargo ships can reach the docks.
"When they have this dredged, Iraq is going to have full access to the gulf, even without Kuwait," said a port official in the gulf region. "Then you have a problem."
The Dutch dredging firm, Volker Stevin, has continued to dig out Iraq's channels since the invasion of Kuwait to complete a $55 million contract for which it has already been paid. The work is scheduled to be finished Sept. 15.
A company spokesman said last week that dredging work was continuing despite U.N. economic sanctions against Iraq because the Netherlands government had not lodged any objections. "We do what the Dutch government tells us to do," the Volker Stevin spokesman said.
Last weekend, the U.S. government sent a letter to the Netherlands apparently expressing concern about Volker Stevin's continued dredging. A Netherlands Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said the Dutch government was studying the letter and would issue a response shortly.
While Kuwait never blocked access to Umm Qasr through the navigation channels now being cleared, its possession of Bubiyan island at the mouth of the channels apparently irked Iraq, which occasionally sought to lease or buy the island, diplomats said.
"I think the islands would have to be the key bit of any settlement," said Jonathan Crusoe, an Iraq specialist at the Middle East Economic Digest.
Control of the islands was one of several issues Iraq raised with Kuwait in increasingly heated discussions in the months leading up to August's invasion.
A related issue was a dispute over drilling rights in the Rumaila oil field, which straddles the border between Iraq and Kuwait.
With about 30 billion barrels in proven reserves, the Rumaila field holds about one-quarter of Iraq's oil wealth. But Iraq said Kuwait was stealing its oil by drilling from its side when Iraqi wells were idle and by employing "slant-drilling" techniques to pull oil from across the border.
Still, the amount of oil Iraq accused Kuwait of stealing over a 10-year period was small compared to each country's production levels, amounting to about 1 percent of the countries' combined exports during the 1980s.
"There was a convoluted logic to Iraq's claim" about the Rumaila field, a diplomat said, "but that had been solved by July and certainly didn't justify an invasion." In July, the Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries agreed to limit Kuwait's oil production quota, delivering to Iraq the potentially higher oil prices and more balanced production levels it sought. Other analysts described the Rumaila dispute as a pretext for an Iraqi invasion, noting that Iraq did not press its claim with the Kuwaitis until it had already initiated invasion plans.