MOSCOW, FEB. 15 -- Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh today welcomed what he called Iraq's "encouraging" decision to discuss a possible withdrawal from Kuwait and said it had opened "a new chapter in the history" of the Persian Gulf conflict.

The Kremlin's relatively optimistic reaction was in sharp contrast to the rejection of the conditional offer by the Bush administration and the European allies. But Soviet officials and Arab diplomats here said that Moscow, which is playing an increasingly important role as a diplomatic mediator in the crisis, was not drifting from the alliance against Iraq.

The Kuwaiti ambassador in Moscow, Abdulmohsin Y. Duaij, said in an interview that the Soviet Union's public reaction to Baghdad's statement was "understandable" considering the "great importance" of the scheduled meeting here Monday between Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz. Aziz is scheduled to arrive here Sunday.

"We should give Moscow some room. After all, for them to criticize Iraq at this point would be like saying to Tariq Aziz, 'Don't come to Moscow,' " the Kuwaiti ambassador said.

Duaij, who was present at Gorbachev's hour-long meeting with Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sabah Ahmed Sabah on Thursday, said the Kuwaitis had "been made to feel very confident" that Moscow has no intention of breaking with the U.S.-led political coalition against Baghdad.

Gorbachev, the Kuwaiti ambassador said, "pleased us very much" by recounting how special Soviet envoy Yevgeny Primakov, during a visit to Baghdad this week, told Saddam that he must comply with all United Nations resolutions and could not split the alliance.

The Kuwaiti ambassador said Gorbachev told the Kuwaiti delegation that he was "more optimistic than before. He sensed the willingness of the Iraqis to withdraw, though he said they could not be sure."

In the meeting, the Kuwaiti foreign minister also described to Gorbachev what he called Iraq's abuses of the local population since the war broke out last month, according to the ambassador. The Kuwaiti foreign minister told Gorbachev that 275 people have been executed since Jan. 17 and recounted how Iraqis had killed some Kuwaitis with axes.

Bessmertnykh, who met here today with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, called the Baghdad statement "an important beginning," adding that he hopes Aziz will clarify the Iraqi offer.

The Soviet news agency Tass said Velayati agreed with the Soviet foreign minister's position, and reported that Bessmertnykh will travel to Tehran "in the near future" to continue talks on the gulf war and on other Middle East issues.

In a letter to Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti sent before the Iraqi announcement, Gorbachev said he would try during his meetings with Aziz to probe Baghdad's intentions and see whether Iraq intends to withdraw from Kuwait unconditionally or is merely engaged in a ploy to drag out the crisis indefinitely.

Andreotti's spokesman in Rome said Gorbachev's letter was cautious about Iraq's intentions but noted that Saddam "is apparently willing to discuss a pullout." Primakov said he had sensed "rays of hope" after his talks this week with Saddam.

{Italy's foreign minister, Gianni De Michelis, announced Friday that the foreign ministers of Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands will visit Moscow on Saturday to meet with Bessmertnykh, the Italian news agency ANSA reported.}

"On the whole, everything looks rather encouraging," Bessmertnykh said, according to Tass. Gorbachev's spokesman Vitaly Ignatenko said the "positive news from Iraq has been received with satisfaction and hope in Moscow."

The Soviet television news program "Vremya," relying on unconfirmed and second-hand reports, speculated that Saddam may be under heavy political pressure from his senior military command to stop the war and may even have been forced to foil one or more attempts at a coup d'etat.

The broadcast speculated that today's statement from Baghdad may have been the result of Saddam's desire to stay alive and in power.

Although the Soviet Union has repeatedly stated its allegiance to the coalition against Iraq, a former Soviet ally and arms recipient, Gorbachev has distanced himself somewhat from Washington in recent weeks.

He has warned that the U.S.-led military operations in the region are in danger of going beyond the mandate set out in the U.N. resolutions. Official sources have also expressed "grave" concern about the number of civilian casualties in Iraq and the "tragic possibility" of the annihilation of Iraq.

Gorbachev has everything to gain and little to lose by trying to play an intermediary role between Washington and Baghdad. His activity appears designed to provide the Soviet Union an opportunity to regain some of its influence in the Arab world after the fighting ends. But Gorbachev's political and diplomatic position is complicated.

The resurgent conservatives in the military and the Communist Party who have leaned on Gorbachev to take a more hard-line position on domestic politics are also exerting tremendous pressure on him not to betray Iraq and not to alienate the rest of the Arab world. The hard-liners already blame Gorbachev for "losing" Eastern Europe and greatly weakening the Soviet Union's postwar role as a superpower.

Conservative newspapers such as Sovyetskaya Rossiya, Literaturnaya Rossiya and Krasnaya Zvezda have all accused the United States of waging a "neocolonial" war of aggression in the gulf designed to give the West and Israel control of the region. Military leaders have accused Moscow of creating a situation in which the Soviet Union could be under threat, especially along its southern borders.

"Saddam Hussein would love to be able to split the coalition," said Giorgi Mirsky, an expert on Middle East issues, "and there are a lot of conservatives around who are inevitably going to go in to Gorbachev now and say, 'After all, the main goal was a withdrawal from Kuwait, so why reject this statement?' "

Unlike the former foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, Primakov is known among officials as an Arabist who is more likely to push Gorbachev to look for a compromise with Iraq.

Primakov, who is in Tokyo for talks with the Japanese leadership, said, "If he had to choose between a settlement or an end-all war, I believe Saddam Hussein would choose to settle . . . but it would have to be satisfactory to Iraq as well." Primakov told NHK television that Saddam's refusal to withdraw from Kuwait has been "no more than propaganda."