BAGHDAD, IRAQ, JAN. 5 -- Efforts to resolve the Persian Gulf crisis peacefully appear to be taking a positive turn, according to several diplomats here who say a complex web of negotiations is unfolding that makes them optimistic about an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.

The diplomats, representing various groups of nations involved in the crisis, described an intricate diplomatic puzzle linking what previously appeared to be unrelated initiatives by the European Community, the Nonaligned Movement and the Arab world. The efforts seek to restore Kuwait's sovereignty in exchange for guarantees that Kuwait and the international community would later address Iraq's pre-invasion grievances.

They warned, however, that the complexity of such a formula, coupled with the unpredictable behavior of Iraq's leadership, makes this scenario tenuous at best.

In Saudia Arabia, both Saudi and Kuwaiti officials said today that no deals were in the making. In Washington, a senior administration official said the United States would accept any agreement reached among Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, but insisted that there was no sign that the Saudis or Kuwaitis are interested in any such deal -- or that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has offered one.

Nevertheless, the mood today in the Iraqi capital -- where Saddam held an unusually long 4 1/2-hour meeting with Michel Vauzelle, chairman of the French parliament's foreign affairs committee -- seemed significantly more upbeat regarding the prospects for peace. It contrasted with the tone in Washington, where President Bush delivered a radio address reiterating U.S. threats to force Iraq out of Kuwait.

Iraqi television said tonight that Saddam would deliver his own speech Sunday on the occasion of Iraq's Army Day. His topic was not announced, but one diplomat described it as an "excellent opportunity to make a significant public statement" on the gulf crisis.

As Vauzelle met with Saddam, Saudi and Kuwaiti officials held talks with Yugoslav Foreign Minister Budimir Loncar, who earlier this week met Saddam in Baghdad. Loncar's reception in Saudi Arabia contrasted with the Saudi refusal last month to receive Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid.

President Bush's announcement Friday that he would not send Secretary of State James A. Baker III to Baghdad did not represent a setback to the peace process, the diplomats said, because other methods of negotiating the withdrawal have eliminated the need for a direct U.S.-Iraqi dialogue. In fact, analysts here said, the planned meeting Wednesday in Switzerland between Baker and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz now amounts to little more than a face-saving formality. But saving face, they said, is a crucial element in making the puzzle fit together.

They said this would explain the persistent use of hard-line rhetoric by Bush and Saddam, even while their envoys have been working to reduce the potential for war.

"Baker will emerge from the talks declaring that he was firm with Aziz, he did not negotiate and that he demanded a full Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, etc., etc.," a Western diplomat said. "Aziz will say he made Iraq's position clear on the Palestinian issue and Iraq did not yield to the American threats." Both sides would simply declare victory for the sake of their own domestic audiences, after which the elements of a behind-the-scenes deal would start to be implemented, he said.

"The Americans will not back down. They say they won't make any face-saving offers," the diplomat said. "Well, they won't have to, because someone else is going to do it for them."

Another envoy described the Baker-Aziz meeting as "something that will look nice on the {television} screen and in the papers but will not really amount to much" because of other deals already being cut.

Another part of the process, according to this diplomat, is Loncar's talks with the Saudis and Kuwaitis. He said he expected Loncar to secure their consent for an "Arab solution" to the crisis -- a key face-saving measure sought by the Iraqis to give the impression that the Arabs resolved the problem without superpower interference.

Loncar's effort, which is on behalf of the Nonaligned Movement, is essentially a continuation of Bendjedid's unsuccessful mission, the diplomat said. The Algerian mission failed when Saudi Arabia refused to receive Bendjedid, who reportedly carried a message from Saddam expressing his willingness to settle the Kuwait conflict.

According to several diplomats, the United States had persuaded the Saudis to reject the meeting because it wanted to avoid the public appearance that concessions were being made to Iraq or that negotiations were taking place. The State Department, however, has denied that the United States interfered with Bendjedid's efforts, saying the Saudis acted independently.

Nevertheless, Loncar is believed to be taking a proposed Iraqi package deal to the Kuwaitis, offering their country back in return for guarantees that Iraq would have access to certain areas after its withdrawal.

Iraq, which has minimal port access to the Persian Gulf, reportedly is seeking to lease from Kuwait the gulf islands of Bubiyan and Warba. Further, Iraq apparently is seeking a Kuwaiti guarantee that it will not pump oil from the Rumailah oil field, which straddles the border between the two countries. And Iraq wants Kuwait to forgive a multibillion-dollar debt Iraq incurred during its eight-year war with Iran.

"This is the idea," said one diplomat. "Let the Iraqis withdraw and the Kuwaitis return. As an independent, sovereign state, Kuwait will then ask for talks with Iraq to resolve their differences once and for all. The Kuwaitis will then agree -- as a sovereign state -- to lease the islands and cap their oil wells in Rumailah.

"This would be the inter-Arab solution Iraq is looking for, but it will achieve the withdrawal everyone is demanding without prior concessions," he explained.

Another Western diplomat said efforts are in progress to arrange an Arab "mini-summit" in Libya, where Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait would meet to formalize the deal, thus underscoring the idea that an inter-Arab solution had been reached. Iraq has been adamant in seeking such a solution, diplomats said, because Saddam must be able to show his people that the withdrawal was not made under U.S. intimidation.

In accepting the U.S. proposal that he meet Baker, Aziz said, "Iraq has been, and is still, affirming that it is not afraid of pressure and that it rejects adopting stances under threats and blackmail."

Still another crucial part of the process is the European Community initiative reportedly being pursued by Vauzelle. In recent days, diplomats here have said the EC is trying to address Iraq's demands that regional concerns -- notably Israel's occupation of Arab lands -- become a part of the overall withdrawal deal.

Iraq today rejected an EC offer to meet Aziz a day after his talks with Baker. The state news agency quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman as criticizing the EC's cancellation of a planned meeting last month with Aziz. It was not clear that the Iraqi rejection would affect diplomacy by the EC.

Although Iraqi officials refuse to speak on the record about a possible deal, Baghdad has signaled that a solution could emerge if there are guarantees -- possibly through public statements or a U.N. resolution -- that an international conference on the Middle East would be convened to address Iraq's grievances. In recent days, the government here has used language suggesting that such a conference "need not occur simultaneously" with an Iraqi withdrawal, suggesting that Iraq is willing to make the first move.

A Western diplomat said today that other face-saving measures are being arranged regarding the Jan. 15 U.N. deadline for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait. "The decision will be made beforehand, but the withdrawal won't begin on the 15th. That's a bad day for them," the diplomat said, explaining that Saddam is anxious not to give his own people the impression that he is bending under international pressure.

In his radio address today, Bush said Jan. 15 marked a diplomatic deadline but not necessarily the start of war against Iraq.

In Washington, a senior administration official, asked about the web of diplomatic efforts, said Bush's position, public and private, continues to be, "If you want to try to settle this peacefully, have at it." The official said any proposal that "is acceptable" to the Kuwaitis and the Saudis in terms of Iraqi withdrawal and later negotiations over the disputed oil fields or islands is "almost certainly" going to be acceptable to the United States, if not publicly embraced.

Another senior official said the United States would find it virtually impossible to sustain international or domestic support for war if Iraq should work out a deal that the key Arab nations -- Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Egypt -- found acceptable. This would be true, he said, even if the deal appeared to reward Iraq later with an international conference on the Palestinian issue or with Kuwaiti concessions on land or oil fields.

"We're going to go to war on Kuwait's behalf over something Kuwait finds acceptable?" he asked. "Tell that to Congress or the American people. No. No way."

But the official warned that, although "an explosion" of diplomatic efforts had occurred in the past few days, the United States had seen no indication -- either from Iraq or from those involved in the diplomacy -- of any intent by Saddam to withdraw.

The official said the EC members, notably the French, and representatives from the nonaligned nations who have traveled to Baghdad are "staying very, very closely in touch with us" and none had suggested any real movement on the part of Saddam to accept "a partial solution, much less a full solution." "If anything," the official said, the signs have been that "his position is hardening, publicly and privately."

The official said that neither Saudi Arabia nor Kuwait "has shown any inclination whatsoever" to offer any later concessions to Iraq in return for a pullout. "They are rock solid. They have to live in this neighborhood and they know Saddam. They know if he gets a little of something, it is all over," the official said.

In Saudi Arabia, officials said Yugoslav Foreign Minister Loncar did not engage in negotiations with Kuwaiti leaders, but simply reported on his talks with Saddam and heard the Kuwaitis' opinions. Loncar is scheduled to meet Sunday with the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud Faisal, but a Saudi official said his government did not expect progress toward a settlement. The Saudis and Kuwaitis, like President Bush, have been toughening their rhetoric toward Iraq as Jan. 15 approaches.

Underscoring the Saudis' firm stance, the Saudi official repeated that Riyadh wants the United Nations economic sanctions on Iraq to "remain in place until {Iraq} complies with all the U.N. resolutions, including paying reparations and compensation" to Kuwait.

In Baghdad, French emissary Vauzelle expressed cautious hopes for a diplomatic resolution, telling French television reporters: "Everything is still possible. Naturally, it is up to Iraq to make certain gestures and to decide what gestures to make and when to make them. But it is up to Western leaders to know what position they must take to incite Iraq to make these gestures. For this to happen, it is necessary for both sides to sincerely want peace."

Correspondent Caryle Murphy in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and staff writer Ann Devroy in Washington contributed to this report.