LONDON, OCT. 22 -- The visit to Baghdad of former prime minister Edward Heath has set off a heated debate here on the moral and practical consequences of talking to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and it has sharpened divisions over the Persian Gulf crisis.
Relatives of the hostages have applauded and the British government has cautiously welcomed Heath's success in winning the release of an undetermined number of sick and elderly British citizens. But many others have questioned whether the price he has paid by meeting with Saddam and expressing support for a "diplomatic solution" of the gulf crisis may be too high and send the wrong signal to Iraq.
Danish Foreign Minister Uffe Ellemann-Jensen told reporters before a meeting of European Community foreign ministers in Luxembourg today that "whoever tries to get special arrangements is creating problems for those hostages being left back because they create an impression in Baghdad that the isolation is not as strong as it actually is."
The result, warned Ellemann-Jensen, would be to "prolong the crisis."
His words were echoed in London by David Howell, chairman of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, who told reporters here: "Every hint that the West is prepared somehow to do deals or to move away from unconditional and immediate withdrawal is succor to Baghdad. It gives Saddam Hussein more chance to divert attention from Kuwait to Israel and will lead to more bloodshed. This guarantees the situation will be worse, more prolonged and more damaging in human lives."
As a former prime minister and an elder statesman of the ruling Conservative Party, Heath, is the senior British political figure to travel to Baghdad and is seen by Iraqis as having stature above that of such previous visitors as Austrian President Kurt Waldheim and American civil rights activist Jesse Jackson.
Heath, 74, has insisted that his mission is strictly a humanitarian and personal one with no link to the government. He has denied there is any political content to the visit.
Nonetheless, the Iraqi media have played up Heath's public statements favoring "face-saving" concessions to allow Saddam to withdraw peacefully from Kuwait as an indication of a sharp split within Britain and the West over how to deal with Iraq. They have also emphasized his role as a strong critic of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to suggest there is a division within the Conservative Party itself.
Critics contend Heath inadvertently helped Saddam with remarks he made to reporters after his three-hour session Sunday with the Iraqi leader. Although Saddam gave no indication he was prepared to withdraw from Kuwait, Heath said the Iraqi leader was keen to find a peaceful solution to the gulf crisis. Heath also added his own indirect criticism of Western policy toward Iraq, saying "not enough was being done to find a diplomatic solution" to the crisis.
The British government has been been divided over the Heath visit. While Thatcher has been restrained publicly, some of her aides are furious at Heath.
The visit has also led to divisions between Thatcher's office and Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, who has given quiet support to the trip.
There are an estimated 1,350 British citizens in Iraq and Kuwait, more than from any other Western nation. At least 300 are being held by the Iraqis as human shields against attack.