UNITED NATIONS, JAN. 15 -- As the clock was ticking toward the midnight deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar made a final plea tonight for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein "to turn the course of events away from catastrophe" and avoid war in the Persian Gulf.

"As Jan. 15 advances, and the world stands poised between peace and war, I most sincerely appeal to President Saddam Hussein to turn the course of events away from catastrophe and toward a new era of justice and harmony based on the principles of the U.N. charter," Perez de Cuellar said. The secretary general spoke at the request of the U.N. Security Council after competing calls for peace failed to win council approval.

"If this commitment is made, and clear and substantial steps taken to implement {U.N.} resolutions, a just peace, with all of its benefits will follow," he said.

In occupied Kuwait, Iraq made no move to order its troops from the sheikdom. Saddam visited his troops there and in the Iraqi city of Basra, urging them to be prepared to confront aggression and insisting "there will be no compromise on the nation's rights," news services reported.

"Leave Kuwait?" said Iraqi Information Minister Latif Nassif Jassem, laughing, in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. "Kuwait is a province of Iraq and beyond discussion." Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis marched in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities in support of Saddam.

Perez de Cuellar's appeal at the United Nations came after France abandoned the proposal it made Monday for the Security Council to seek a peaceful resolution of the gulf crisis by promising Saddam an international conference on the Palestinian question in exchange for withdrawal from Kuwait.

The French plan foundered in the face of strong opposition from the United States, the Soviet Union and Britain, which criticized the idea as rewarding aggression. Washington and London have strongly opposed scheduling such talks now because they are unwilling to concede Saddam's demand that his withdrawal from Kuwait be linked to Israel's relinquishing the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The plan also failed to attract any interest from Saddam, thereby scuttling French President Francois Mitterrand's hopes that the offer would serve as a springboard for French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas to go to Baghdad for further discussions.

In Paris, Prime Minister Michel Rocard acknowledged that Iraq had made no response to the French initiative and added: "In any police operation, there is a fatal moment when one must act. . . . This moment has, alas, arrived after we have done everything to avoid it."

Earlier, the French U.N. delegation had rejected a joint British-Soviet move to replace the French plan with a statement by the Security Council's current president, Bagbeni Adeito Nzengeya of Zaire. It would have dropped the reference to an international conference and called on Iraq to heed the world's call for an end to the occupation of Kuwait.

France eventually agreed that such a statement should be made by the secretary general, who returned here Monday after an unsuccessful weekend meeting with Saddam in Baghdad. Early this evening, Perez de Cuellar, looking grim and speaking in solemn tones, appeared before hundreds of reporters to deliver his appeal.

Referring to the Security Council's decision on Nov. 29 to authorize force against Iraq after tonight's deadline passes, Perez de Cuellar said:

"All of us are aware of the extreme gravity of the decisions to be made in the period ahead. No one, and no nation, can -- except with a heavy heart -- resort to the other 'necessary means' implied by the {Nov. 29 decsion}, knowing in advance that tragic and unpredictable consequences can follow."

If Iraq agrees to withdraw, Perez de Cuellar said, he could assure Saddam, "based on understandings I have received from governments at the highest level," that Iraq would not be attacked by the U.S.-led military coalition arrayed against it in the gulf.

He also offered to deploy U.N. observers and, if necessary, U.N. forces to supervise the withdrawal, to encourage the phasing out of foreign forces in the gulf region and to ask the Security Council to reconsider its imposition of sanctions against Iraq.

"I have every assurance, once again from the highest levels of government, that with the resolution of the present crisis, every effort will be made to address, in a comprehensive manner, the Arab-Israeli conflict, including the Palestinian question," he said. "I pledge my every effort to this end."

That promise fell short of the specific commitment to meet Saddam's demand for an international conference that was the core of the French proposal. Nevertheless, U.N. sources said France, which has spearheaded efforts to use an international conference as a bargaining chip to resolve the crisis, was especially insistent that it be part of Perez de Cuellar's statement.

However, events of the past few days appear to have dispelled any hope that an international conference or other concessions can deter Saddam from his determination to hold on to Kuwait, which he occupied Aug. 2.

In a confidential report to the Security Council Monday night, Perez de Cuellar said that during his 2 1/2-hour meeting with Saddam on Sunday in Baghdad, he had found the Iraqi leader adamant on that point. The Washington Post has obtained a copy of the report, and in it, Perez de Cuellar said:

"On the question of withdrawal, the president stated that the Iraqi people today regarded Kuwait as Iraq's '19th province' and 'would not even whisper the word "withdrawal," as war was looming and such an utterance would give a psychological advantage to Iraq's adversaries."

Perez de Cuellar concluded his appeal tonight by saying: "In the 10th and final year of my tenure as secretary general, no cause would give me greater satisfaction than to set the Middle East as a whole on the road to just and lasting peace. And no disappointment would be greater and more tragic than to find the nations of the world engaging in a conflict that none of their peoples want."

Correspondent David Remnick added from Moscow:

The Soviet Union's special envoy for the gulf crisis said in an interview published in the Soviet capital Tuesday that during a meeting last October, Saddam said, "I am a realist. I know I will eventually have to leave" Kuwait.

Yevgeny Primakov, who met with Saddam twice in Bagdhad in failed attempts to settle the crisis, also said that the Iraqi leader tried to demonstrate that he was the focus of an international conspiracy.

Saddam "gave me a cassette tape which had on it a tapped phone conversation between a certain king and a certain emir," Primakov told the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, implying that the talk was between the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

"The conversation took place in June {before the invasion} and I heard one voice telling the other '{Saddam} should be destroyed, and to do that it would be worthwhile even to set up contacts with America.' And then the other man on the tape agrees."

Primakov expressed no reservations about the authenticity of the tape, but it was not possible to verify the incident independently.

Meanwhile, newly appointed Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh said he would continue the Soviet Union's gulf policy of endorsing the United Nations resolutions authorizing the use of force to dislodge Iraq from its tiny neighbor. "There are things in which no compromise is possible," Bessmertnykh said. He said the question of whether or not war would break out in the region remained an "enigma."