BAGHDAD, IRAQ, JAN. 12 -- U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar arrived here today in an urgent attempt to avert war in the Persian Gulf, as the United States pulled out its diplomatic staff and closed its embassy in Baghdad three days before the U.N. deadline for Iraq to leave Kuwait.
Perez de Cuellar told reporters on arrival that he hoped "to convey possibly good news" at the end of his visit, although he was not specific about the agenda and duration of his trip. He was greeted at the airport by Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz and the two men met twice later in the day. The U.N. chief was expected to meet with President Saddam Hussein on Sunday.
"As you know very well, I come here as a messenger of peace," Perez de Cuellar told reporters. "I am not bringing any specific proposal. All I bring is . . . my good will" and "the wish of the international community for a peaceful solution" to the crisis in the Persian Gulf, where U.S.-led multinational forces are massed for possible attack against Iraq should it refuse to honor the U.N. deadline.
While Perez de Cuellar said he did not come with a peace plan, he had met in Geneva Friday with European Community foreign ministers and discussed a multi-stage process to end the crisis. The ministers said Perez de Cuellar would tell Saddam that Iraq would not come under military attack if it withdraws, and he would cite the strong European backing for an international conference on the Middle East, two issues believed important to the Iraqi leader.
Saddam today called for the rubber-stamp National Assembly to meet on Monday, according to Iraqi television. No reason for the session was given, although in the past, Saddam has used the assembly to ratify significant moves, such as in early December when he decided to release thousands of foreigners he had been holding hostage here and in Kuwait. The timing of the session -- on the eve of the U.N. deadline -- suggested Saddam mightmake an announcement regarding his plans on Kuwait.
"I would think that we're fairly close to the brink," U.S. Embassy charge d'affaires Joseph C. Wilson IV said at his residence today before his departure aboard a chartered Iraqi Airways plane that flew him, his five American staff members and 38 other passengers to Frankfurt.
Among the passengers were an unidentified Iraqi citizen and diplomats from Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium, Brazil, Norway and Ireland. Three Swiss Embassy officials also were aboard, including the ambassador, despite earlier Swiss statements that they would remain here as a symbol of Switzerland's desire for peace and to symbolize its neutrality in the crisis.
Western diplomats said the rush to evacuate the embassies was prompted by rumors that the United States plans to bombard Baghdad heavily after expiration of the U.N. deadline.
Wilson said he had no comment on U.S. military plans after the deadline expires, and he cautioned, "If you portray this as a U.S.-Iraqi confrontation, you're all wrong." He said any military action against Iraq would occur under a U.N. umbrella and involved a coalition of international forces that "remains firm."
As the U.N. deadline approached, new calls were made for a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Syrian President Hafez Assad, who joined the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq, appealed in a radio address for Saddam, his archenemy, to leave Kuwait before a war erupted that, he said, would benefit Israel.
Assad, who met with U.S. Secretary of States James A. Baker III in Damascus today, told Saddam to "take the courageous decision to spare Iraq a major catastrophe in order not to enable the enemies of the Arab nation to gain benefit from the present situation." In the message, broadcast over Damascus radio, Assad said the enemy was Israel.
Meanwhile in Moscow, the Soviet parliament called on President Mikhail Gorbachev to pursue new efforts with Iraq and the United States aimed at finding a peaceful settlement, although it did not specify what actions might be taken, Reuter reported. The parliament appealed to all sides in the conflict to avoid a military conflict, saying it would have "catastrophic consequences." In a related development, Baker today praised Gorbachev for pursuing new efforts to avert war.
Yemen, an Arab state that has been sympathetic to Iraq in the crisis, today urged Baghdad to leave Kuwait and moved to repair fractured relations with Egypt, a leader in the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq. Yemen and Cuba were the only two countries on the 15-member U.N. Security Council to vote against the Nov. 29 resolution authorizing the use of all necessary means to free Kuwait.
Today, Yemen's foreign minister, Abdul Karim Iryani, arrived in Cairo unannounced and met Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for talks, Reuter reported. Diplomats said Yemen's move indicates that it does not want to be too isolated in the Arab world by backing Saddam.
Here in Baghdad, the American flag was taken down from atop the U.S. Embassy early this morning, an action Wilson said he ordered "to avoid the desecration of our national symbol." Earlier this week, Wilson took down the flag that had flown atop the embassy throughout the ordeal that began with Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, and replaced it with a reserve flag. Wilson said he plans to present a flag to President Bush after his arrival in Washington early Sunday.