MOSCOW, FEB. 16 -- The Soviet Union, while describing Friday's offer by Baghdad to withdraw from Kuwait as an "initial step" toward a peaceful settlement of the Persian Gulf War, today joined the United States in rejecting the conditions Iraq attached to the initiative.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Vitaly Churkin told a news conference that Soviet leaders would use a visit by Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz to explore Baghdad's intentions in greater detail. Aziz, who will be making his first trip outside Iraq since the Persian Gulf War began a month ago, is scheduled to meet with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev Monday.
At a meeting today with a delegation of European Community foreign ministers, Gorbachev said that it was "never too late" to make "maximum use of diplomatic-political methods" to end the gulf war. The official Tass news agency quoted the foreign ministers -- from Luxembourg, Italy and the Netherlands -- as telling Gorbachev that Baghdad's withdrawal offer was unacceptable in its present form.
Today's comments by Soviet spokesmen appeared designed to reassure the United States and other Western countries that the Kremlin is continuing to insist on a complete Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. The Soviet Union was Iraq's principal superpower patron until the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, but subsequently cut off arms shipments to its former ally.
A presidential spokesman, Vitaly Ignatenko, told reporters Friday that Moscow greeted Iraq's conditional withdrawal offer with "satisfaction and hope."
Today, Soviet officials elaborated on Ignatenko's brief statement to make clear that they did not regard Baghdad's conditions as acceptable.
Churkin said the Soviets are continuing to study the statement by Iraq's ruling Revolutionary Command Council, which, among other conditions, linked an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait to an Israeli pullback from occupied Arab lands and the withdrawal of all foreign troops from the region. He said that Moscow was happy about the fact that Iraqi leaders were now talking about leaving Kuwait, but feared that the conditions could make the offer meaningless.
"Apparently an initial step has been made, but quite often it is difficult to judge by the initial step in what direction the advance will continue," Churkin said.
Tass quoted the Soviet ambassador to the United Nations, Yuli Vorontsov, as calling the Iraqi statement "very complex and contradictory." Vorontsov said it was necessary to clarify what was positive in the statement and "what has nothing in common with Security Council resolutions and decisions."
The Soviet Union voted in favor of all Security Council resolutions on the crisis, including Resolution 660, which called for an immediate and unconditional Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, and Resolution 678, which authorized "all necessary means" to force Baghdad to withdraw.
But the Kremlin's diplomatic support for the anti-Iraq coalition has recently become a matter of some domestic controversy here, with hard-liners suggesting that the Soviet Union has become a passive tool of the United States.
Sovyetskaya Rossiya, the official newspaper of the hard-line Russian Communist Party, today denounced Soviet support for Resolution 678 in a half-page article. It described the use of force against Iraq as a violation of the United Nations charter.
Western diplomats and Soviet analysts here believe that Gorbachev is attempting subtly to distance himself from Washington to appease his hard-line critics and promote Soviet interests in the Middle East after the end of the war. Most of them doubt that he will break ranks with the coalition on the terms of an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, if only because he remains eager to secure Western economic assistance.
Churkin told journalists that the content of the Iraqi statement came as little surprise to the Soviet leadership in view of the recent visit to Baghdad by a Gorbachev envoy, Yevgeny Primakov.