JIDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA, NOV. 15 -- Iraqi President Saddam Hussein said he wants to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the Persian Gulf crisis with the United States and Saudi Arabia, but he refused to make a commitment to withdraw his forces from Kuwait as a precondition for such talks.
Saddam's comments came in an interview with ABC News broadcast tonight. He said President Bush's calls for unconditional Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait were "preconditions for capitulation." Asked whether his position on Kuwait was negotiable, he answered, "When I say something I mean it," suggesting that he would not withdraw as a precondition for talks.
Saddam also reiterated that foreign hostages could be freed soon if the United States removed the threat of war. Pressed on whether he might release the captives, he said: "Yes, after a while, and this does not have to be long, with God's help."
"If we felt that war is not looming large and that the American officials are now beginning to think about alternatives to this course of war, then all these people must be allowed their full freedom," Saddam said.
He charged that the United States was defending a Kuwaiti leadership that was "scandalous" to all Americans.
Although he refused to budge on the crucial issue of withdrawing troops from Kuwait, Saddam's tone in the ABC interview was less belligerent and confrontational than in some previous interviews. He told ABC's Peter Jennings that "the right way to go is the course of peace and that peace should be . . . complete and final. But as to details, the solution is going to be an Arab solution."
The Iraqi leader said this "Arab solution" required "dialogue between . . . Iraq and Saudi Arabia." He said that to resolve the international dimension of the crisis, Iraq and the United States should conduct "dialogues . . . toward the achievement of a comprehensive peace in the region."
But prospects for an Arab diplomatic breakthrough appeared to dim today, as the leaders of Egypt and Syria issued a joint statement accusing Iraq of setting "impossible" conditions for attending an emergency Arab summit on the gulf crisis.
Iraq's "preconditions made the convening of such a summit difficult, if not impossible," said the statement issued in Damascus by Presidents Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Hafez Assad of Syria.
The two, making their first official comment on Moroccan King Hassan II's call Sunday for an emergency "last-chance" summit, also "expressed their regret over Iraq's foiling of any political solution aimed at restoring the situation in Kuwait" to what prevailed before Iraq's invasion Aug. 2 of the oil-rich emirate.
The comments by the Arab leaders came as units of the U.S. and Saudi military began a six-day amphibious exercise called Operation Imminent Thunder and centered on Saudi beaches about 100 miles south of Kuwait.
The operation, involving more than 1,000 U.S. Marines, 16 ships and 1,100 military planes, was described in Washington by Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams as a training exercise that will enhance "amphibious warfare skills" and test command procedures. Williams said a small number of U.S. troops "no closer than 25 miles" to the Kuwaiti border would also participate.
"I will let people in the region draw their own conclusions" about the exercise, Williams said. Officials call the exercise the first U.S. landing operation on Saudi soil since Iraq invaded Kuwait.
But the Iraqi News Agency, quoted an official spokesman as saying, "this is a clear provocative act that exposes, besides much other evidence, the American aggressive intentions against Iraq."
In Washington, meanwhile, the State Department announced that more than 100 Americans and their foreign-born family members are scheduled to leave Kuwait Sunday on a U.S.-chartered Iraqi Airways flight. The plane is expected to go through Baghdad to London the same day. Travel to the United States is being arranged.
Deputy spokesman Richard Boucher said most of those departing are women and children who had been able to depart before "but have only recently decided to leave." He said a few adult American males of Arab descent also are expected to leave.
The statement by Mubarak and Assad came as an emissary of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev warned Iraq that a military solution to the gulf crisis could be averted only by its immediate and unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait.
Speaking in Morocco after conferring with Hassan, Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Petrovsky said there was still time to avert war but cautioned that time was running out and the crisis had reached "a very dangerous stage." Petrovsky is one of two envoys dispatched to the Middle East by Gorbachev to assess efforts at reaching a peaceful solution.
The Egyptian-Syrian statement, which follows a similar response to Hassan's initiative by Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, indicates that Iraq's three main Arab adversaries are standing firm behind the resolutions adopted at the last Arab summit, held eight days after the invasion, calling for Iraq's immediate and unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Faisal said Wednesday that any Arab conference "would bear no fruit or results" unless Iraq withdraws from Kuwait.
Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia have contributed the largest number of Arab troops to the U.S.-led multinational force arrayed against Iraq in the northern desert of Saudi Arabia.
Iraq's First Deputy Prime Minister Taha Yassin Ramadan said Wednesday that Baghdad wanted any new summit to "erase the infamous Cairo summit resolutions," which were approved by 12 of the Arab League's 21 members. Besides demanding an Iraqi withdrawal, that summit also endorsed Saudi Arabia's call for foreign forces to help protect it from a feared Iraqi drive into its oil-producing territory.
Ramadan's comment appeared to add another condition to ones already set by Baghdad before it would agree to go to a summit. Those included "consultations" on the meeting's site and date, and Iraq's demand that its occupation of Kuwait be discussed in the context of regional security issues, including Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory.
Meanwhile, Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz charged today that the "main U.S. objective in the region is to control oil wells and dictate oil policies." Aziz was responding to comments by Secretary of State James A. Baker III on Wednesday that U.S. officials are concerned that the gulf crisis will increase unemployment in the United States.
Baker said Washington cannot permit Iraq to strangle "the economic lifeline from the gulf."
Baker's comments "deliberately obscured" the oil policies that Baghdad has pursued the past 20 years, Aziz said. "These policies have . . . tried to prevent market fluctuations, whereas the regimes that have received U.S. troops were the parties that tampered with the oil market to serve the ruler's whims and their evil ambitions."
Iraq was the driving force behind a decision in July by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to increase oil prices to $21 a barrel from about $14.