PARIS, JAN. 10 -- A last-minute diplomatic effort to avert war in the Persian Gulf took shape today as European nations promoted an international peace conference and the U.N. secretary general held out the possibility of sending a peace-keeping force to Kuwait if Iraq agrees to withdraw.
A day after the collapse of U.S.-Iraqi talks in Geneva, European Community foreign ministers announced that they will meet Friday in Geneva to consider new peace proposals that would contain a call for an international conference this year on the Arab-Israeli dispute. By meeting this key Iraqi demand, the Europeans hope to induce Iraq to announce a withdrawal from Kuwait in the five days remaining before a U.N. deadline.
Despite U.S. and Israeli opposition to an international conference, French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas received assurances Tuesday in a meeting with Secretary of State James A. Baker III that the United States would not veto a European initiative calling for talks on the Palestinian question after Kuwait's sovereignty is restored, European officials said.
After their meeting Friday, the EC foreign ministers plan to meet with U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, who will be stopping in Geneva from Paris before proceeding to Baghdad on Saturday in hopes of meeting with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. In Paris, the secretary general plans to hold talks with French officials.
Perez de Cuellar said today that "if there is a withdrawal of the Iraqi forces, there will be a role for the United Nations peace-keeping forces." But a U.N. spokesman later stressed that Perez de Cuellar was not going to Baghdad with a specific plan "in hand."
"I think that will be probably discussed, possibly, in Baghdad, although we don't know," the spokesman said. "At the moment, there is no such intention to have this specific proposal. Depending on how the talks go, it certainly could be mentioned."
The Associated Press said the Nordic countries discussed the idea with Perez de Cuellar on Monday and that, according to one of the Nordic envoys, the U.N. chief put his aides to work on a plan for a U.N. force to monitor an Iraqi withdrawal and establish a buffer zone between the Iraqi and U.S.-led forces.
Italian Foreign Minister Gianni De Michelis, who discussed the secretary general's upcoming mission to Iraq in parliament today, said Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz may still agree to meet with European negotiators in Algiers in the coming days to discuss the European Community's peace plan.
European leaders said the failure of the Geneva meeting Wednesday between Aziz and Baker was a grave disappointment but must not be allowed to thwart last-minute attempts to secure peace. "The window to peace has not been opened wider, but it was not closed tight," German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher said.
"Secret diplomacy is in a state of extreme difficulty," said French Prime Minister Michel Rocard. But he echoed President Francois Mitterrand in saying France was determined with its European partners to find a way to persuade Iraq to announce its departure from Kuwait before the Jan. 15 deadline authorizing the use of military force to eject Iraqi troops from the occupied gulf state.
European officials said that in addition to the strong endorsement for an international Middle East parley to be held this year, the European peace package may offer promises of debt relief and economic assistance to alleviate damage from the five-month global economic embargo imposed by the U.N. Security Council.
President Bush has rejected any direct linkage between Iraq's pullout from Kuwait and other Middle East conflicts, saying it would appear to reward aggression. But European officials said members of the U.S.-led, 28-nation coalition arrayed against Iraq realize that rapid progress will be necessary on the Arab-Israeli issue regardless of whether they go to war against Iraq.
"All problems of the region have to be dealt with, and we must make it clear to Iraq that we are prepared to promise that," a Bonn Foreign Ministry source said.
Baker's desire to keep intact the coalition composed principally of European and Arab allies that ardently support an international conference on the Arab-Israeli dispute has led to a softening of the U.S. position, French sources said. While publicly disavowing an international conference on the Middle East, the sources said, the United States recognizes that efforts to thwart other allies from moving down that road could endanger the coalition.
As a result, the United States is now willing to take a back seat and allow France, Algeria and the U.N. secretary general to take the lead in the coming days during the deadline rush to reach a peaceful resolution of the gulf conflict, according to U.S. officials traveling with Baker.
Perez de Cuellar acknowledged that he had little maneuvering room in his upcoming talks with Iraqi officials but said, "I think there is room to make some progress."
"I think everybody's hands are tied because we have Security Council resolutions," he said. "I am hopeful my moral authority will have some impact."
A U.N. spokesman stressed that a meeting between Perez de Cuellar and Saddam has not yet been formally arranged. Perez de Cuellar's flight to Geneva was rerouted through Paris at the last minute "for security reasons."
In Paris today, Dumas met with 20 Arab ambassadors, including envoys from Iraq and Kuwait, in an effort to win wider international support for the European peace initiative. He also consulted with Algerian Foreign Minister Ahmed Ghozali. Last month, Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid toured the region with Ghozali and held long talks with several Arab leaders, including Saddam.
"It's my profound conviction that Saddam Hussein does not want war," Ghozali said in a French television interview tonight. "He wants to negotiate. But if we don't offer him a choice, he is ready to die."
"The problem is how to create the kind of feeling in the Iraqi mind that, yes, their message about the need to solve the Palestinian problem after more than 40 years has finally gotten through to the world," an official source in Algiers said. "We have to substantiate that with enough conviction to persuade him that a large number of Europeans will exert psychological and political pressure on the United States and Israel to do something about the Palestinians" after an Iraqi pullout from Kuwait.
The question that must be asked, Ghozali said in Paris, "is whether the United States is prepared to go to war simply because it does not want to see an international conference on the Middle East take place."
French Defense Minister Jean Pierre Chevenement suggested today that Bush should abandon his concern about linkage by making "a small gesture" in backing an international conference, because "it could permit Saddam Hussein to make a much greater gesture in pulling his troops out of Kuwait."
Chevenement added that "everyone knows that this conference will become even more urgent after the conflict. So why not announce something today if that would spare the world this conflict?"Correspondents Marc Fisher in Berlin, Jonathan C. Randal in Algiers and special correspondent Trevor Rowe at the United Nations contributed to this report.