DHAHRAN, SAUDI ARABIA, NOV. 30 -- Washington's allies in the Persian Gulf crisis generally reacted favorably today to President Bush's new diplomatic initiative, but several anxious Kuwaiti officials said they had been caught unawares by Bush's announcement.

Many foreign officials, in responding to the proposal for direct contact between the United States and Iraq, viewed it as the beginning of what could be an extended diplomatic negotiation to resolve the crisis rather than as a chance for the United States to deliver a face-to-face ultimatum, as Bush's comments suggested.

Saudi Arabia's King Fahd knew in advance of Bush's proposal for dialogue with Iraqi officials, according to a Saudi official who expressed support for the idea.

"It's a good way to peace -- if Saddam {Hussein, Iraq's president} would like that," said the official, who is familiar with thinking in the royal court. "It's a very good touch for Bush, especially after getting what he got {Thursday} at the United Nations." The U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution Thursday authorizing the use of any means necessary to drive Iraq's occupation forces out of Kuwait.

But Kuwaiti officials, reached at their exiled government's headquarters in Taif, Saudi Arabia, were caught by surprise and said they had not been officially informed beforehand.

"This is the first time we hear of it," said Abdulrahman Awadi, Kuwait's minister of state for cabinet affairs. "We have not received official explanation of why this whole thing is happening."

In addition to saying that Secretary of State James A. Baker III would be ready to travel to Iraq to meet with Saddam, Bush indicated that Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz would be invited to meet in Washington with "ambassadors of several of our coalition partners in the gulf." Such a meeting would bring Saudi and Iraqi officials into direct contact for the first time since a stormy Arab League meeting in Cairo on Aug. 10, eight days after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

Fahd so far has rebuffed suggestions from Saddam -- conveyed through third parties -- for direct talks on a peaceful solution to the gulf crisis. The king has said he would talk only after an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.

The Saudi official echoed Bush's contention that Saddam is not fully aware of the international coalition's determination to force him out of Kuwait by military means if necessary.

"The idea we have is that his own people are not telling him the truth," the official said. By having face-to-face contact with U.S. officials, "he will hear it from the lion's mouth."

Saudi and Kuwaiti officials suggested that if Saddam agrees to the meetings, one of the key things he will seek from U.S. officials is a guarantee that his military forces will not come under attack if he withdraws from Kuwait. Although destruction of Saddam's war machine is not one of the Bush administration's stated goals in the gulf confrontation, officials in Washington have suggested it might be a welcome consequence of an armed conflict.

"I think he is worried that his armaments will be {destroyed}," said a Saudi official. "Nobody has assured him {they will be left intact}, and that's what he wants now."

A Kuwaiti official also applauded the Bush announcement because, he said, it preempts Saddam from "coming out with fake initiatives for peace" before Jan. 15, the date set by Thursday's U.N. resolution for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait.

"You have to seize the initiative and not let Saddam have the initiative," he said.

British officials publicly welcomed the new diplomatic initiative, Washington Post correspondent Glenn Frankel reported from London. Downing Street officials said that Bush discussed it by phone today with Prime Minister John Major and that the two men had agreed to meet sometime before Christmas for their first face-to-face meeting since Major took office Wednesday.

Some British officials privately were more cautious. The general sense in London was that Bush may have had to undertake such an initiative to satisfy Moscow and Beijing and quell rising unease in the United States.

Some British analysts expressed fear that Saddam could see the move as a victory and a vindication of his unyielding stance and fail to heed the tough message Baker is expected to deliver. Others fear that moderate Arab states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia also may see the move as an easing of American determination and might cause them to reconsider as well.

While no official French comment was made tonight, French officials privately welcomed and praised the Bush initiative, saying it will help sustain the global consensus while providing a final opportunity for Saddam to show if he is really prepared to leave Kuwait, correspondent William Drozdiak reported from Paris.

"While Saddam understands the language of violence, his personality is not the type that will back down in the face of threats," a French Foreign Ministry official said. Explaining what he called the "cornered rat" syndrome, the official said the escalation of military threats was becoming counterproductive because it was forcing the Iraqi leader to dig in his heels and stand up to Western pressure because backing down would be a complete humiliation, especially in the Arab culture.

The French sources said Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, as well as his French counterpart, Roland Dumas, was a particularly strong advocate of some kind of diplomatic initiative to accompany Thursday's U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force against Saddam. French officials said that during the working sessions held by Security Council foreign ministers, Shevardnadze insisted on the necessity of using the seven weeks before the resolution's Jan. 15 deadline to explore every possible avenue for a peaceful resolution.

The Soviet Union did not formally respond to the Bush proposal, but it issued a harsh warning to Baghdad to release the 3,300 Soviet nationals still held in Iraq.

"Everybody should know that we will not hesitate to use force to protect our citizens," Shevardnadze told the official Soviet news agency Tass in New York.

At the United Nations, Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar called the U.S. move "a very commendable one" and said "if these contacts take place we will be really, really leading to a peaceful solution of the problem," Reuters reported.