MOSCOW, FEB. 18 -- Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev launched a personal diplomatic initiative to end the Persian Gulf War today, presenting Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz with a detailed plan for a political settlement.
Presidential spokesman Vitaly Ignatenko told a news conference here that the Gorbachev plan, which had not been discussed with President Bush or other members of the anti-Iraq coalition before it was presented to Aziz, provided for a full Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait in accordance with United Nations resolutions.
He refused to detail other elements in the package, but Soviet and foreign analysts here speculated that it included pledges to tackle broader Middle East problems once the gulf war has been settled, as well as to ensure the territorial integrity of Iraq, President Saddam Hussein's personal safety, and an end to international economic sanctions.
Aziz left Moscow after only 16 hours in the Soviet capital to brief Saddam on Gorbachev's initiative. He said only that the atmosphere at the talks "between us and the Soviet friends" was "cordial and objective."
Ignatenko said the Iraqi side had greeted it with "interest and understanding" and that Aziz had been "very constructive." He said he expected an official reply from Baghdad "very soon."
According to Ignatenko, Aziz significantly softened Baghdad's terms for withdrawing from Kuwait by describing a long list of demands issued last Friday by the ruling Revolutionary Command Council as "a program" rather than "conditions." The distinction is significant because it implies that Iraq might agree to withdraw even in the absence of guarantees that other Middle East problems will be resolved.
President Bush returned to Washington this afternoon from Kennebunkport, Maine, to meet with senior advisers for what White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said was "an update, a status report from everybody on where we are," staff writer Dan Balz reported from Washington.
This evening, the White House issued a terse statement saying that the president had since received a "summary account" of the meeting in Moscow between Gorbachev and Aziz. "The Soviets have asked that we treat the substance of this account as confidential," the statement said. "Thus we will not comment further on it. Our military campaign remains on schedule."
In the war zone today, two U.S. warships -- the USS Princeton, a guided-missile cruiser, and the USS Tripoli, a helicopter and troop carrier -- struck mines in the northern Persian Gulf, the first time such weapons had been used successfully against the vast allied armada.
According to other Washington Post reporters in Saudi Arabia and Washington, seven sailors were injured, four on the Tripoli and three on the Princeton. The Navy said the Tripoli was only slightly damaged, with some flooding in a forward compartment quickly controlled and the ship remaining "fully mission capable" after repairs to seal a hole in the hull.
The Princeton, however, suffered some structural damage and was forced to cut its power by about 50 percent due to damage to one of its propulsion screws, although all of its radars and missiles were still said to be operational. Both ships were among a large armada preparing for a possible Marine amphibious landing.
For Gorbachev, helping to broker a settlement to the month-long gulf war would represent a personal diplomatic triumph at a time when his peacemaker image has been tarnished by military crackdowns in the Baltic republics. It would also put the Soviet Union in a favorable position to put its stamp on postwar developments in the Middle East after a period of flagging Soviet influence there.
In a television interview, Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Vitaly Churkin described the Gorbachev plan as a "last chance" to secure a peaceful settlement before an allied land offensive to liberate Kuwait. Gorbachev reportedly had asked Bush to delay the ground offensive for a few days so he could make a final attempt to persuade Saddam to withdraw unconditionally from Kuwait.
Yevgeny Primakov, Gorbachev's Middle East adviser, said on ABC TV's "Nightline," "I'm still optimistic. I think peace can be achieved." Primakov, in an apparent effort to allay U.S. fears that Moscow might undercut its position in the Middle East, said: "Please don't worry about us doing something against you. . . . We simply wish to play our role in order to achieve the withdrawal of Iraqi troops."
Arab and Western diplomats here believe the Gorbachev package includes an insistence on an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait as the first point. They said subsequent points in the program probably addressed such concerns as Iraq's territorial integrity and Saddam's personal safety, an end to sanctions against Baghdad, and a promise to tackle other Middle Eastern issues, including the Palestinian problem.
"All these other points will probably be part of a program that will follow withdrawal," predicted one Middle East diplomat. "I don't think we will see anything radically new in this package. All the elements that are needed for a diplomatic solution are already in the air."
After his talks here this morning in the Kremlin with Gorbachev and Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh, Aziz left for home aboard a Soviet aircraft. He was due to spend the night in the Iranian capital, Tehran, and to travel by road to Baghdad Tuesday.
Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was also quoted today on Tehran radio as saying there was a "bright prospect" for peace in the gulf because of Iraq's signal on Friday that it was willing to withdraw from Kuwait, the Associated Press reported from Cyprus.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, who left for Germany today for talks on the gulf war, was also quoted as saying that "political efforts in the region will continue with more coordination." Iran has also drafted a peace plan that has remained largely secret but which reportedly involves the ultimate deployment of an Islamic peace-keeping force in the region.
Before conclusion of Aziz's trip to Moscow, the Iraqi government newspaper Al Thawra said there were "high hopes and expectations" that the Iraqi-Soviet talks "will be a decisive turning point between war and peace."
Gorbachev's proposal, which Ignatenko called "a concrete plan for settlement in the Persian Gulf through political means," appeared designed to give Saddam a face-saving opportunity to end the war while allowing Bush to argue that the United States has achieved its aim of securing Iraq's unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait with a minimum cost in American lives. By not clearing the package in advance with Washington, Gorbachev was in effect taking personal responsibility for the guarantees to Iraq.
"Gorbachev is putting his credibility at stake, as a Nobel Peace Prize winner," said Kuwait's ambassador to Moscow, Abdulmohsin Duaij. "I'm sure he is insisting that Iraq adhere to U.N. Security Council resolutions. At the same time, he could be giving them some promises that other Middle East issues will be discussed."
Soviet officials are under no illusion that any peace proposals that fall short of a full Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait would be acceptable to Washington. At the same time, they argue that a joint statement issued Jan. 29 in Washington by Bessmertnykh and Secretary of State James A. Baker III amounted to an indirect linkage of the Kuwait crisis to broader Middle East problems.
That statement, which the Bush administration insisted meant no change in U.S. policy, promised to work toward the establishment of effective security structures in the Middle East following the end of the war. It added that the elimination of instability in the region was impossible without "a full-blooded peace process . . . and a genuine reconciliation between Israel, the Arab States, and the Palestinians."
In a statement Friday that for the first time raised the possibility of an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, Baghdad demanded the withdrawal of all foreign troops from the region, cancellation of U.N. resolutions on the war that go beyond Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait, an Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories, and payment of reparations to Iraq. It also called for an end to the U.N. economic embargo against Iraq, the cancellation of Iraqi debts incurred in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, and new regional security arrangements.
"Any talk of conditions or linkage is quite unrealistic -- and Saddam must realize this," said Georgi Mirsky, a Middle East expert with the Institute for the Study of the World Economy in Moscow. "But we still don't know his real intentions. If he withdraws from Kuwait, he can avoid the real battle, the battle for Iraq. But he must be worried that he will lose his credibility in the Middle East if he gives up now."
Aziz was accompanied to Moscow by Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Saadoun Hammadi. Apart from Gorbachev, the principal Soviet negotiators were Bessmertnykh and Primakov, who traveled to Baghdad last week to make a last effort to persuade Saddam to withdraw.
According to Ignatenko, Aziz did not bring any personal message to Gorbachev from Saddam. Instead, he appeared to have spent most of his time listening to what the Soviet leader had to say.
Ignatenko said Gorbachev had spoken by telephone with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl on Middle East and European security issues. The West German newspaper Bild later quoted German sources as saying that Gorbachev's peace plan included four main points:
That Iraq withdraw unconditionally from Kuwait.
That the Soviet Union commit itself to maintain Iraq's state structure and borders.
That the Soviet Union oppose "all sanctions" against Iraq, including punitive action against Saddam.
That all other problems, including the Palestinian question, be negotiated.
In military action today, cloudy skies over much of Iraq and Kuwait caused the allies to cancel or redirect some sorties. About one-third of the British missions were called off, in some cases because of thick fog, according to Group Capt. Niall Irving of the Royal Air Force. Even so, the allies flew 2,400 sorties, including nearly 1,000 against targets in Kuwait and among Republican Guard units.
A U.S. Air Force F-16 crashed today and its pilot ejected, 40 miles behind Iraqi lines. He was saved by a combat search-and-rescue helicopter, U.S. Central Command spokesman Brig. Gen. Richard Neal said without providing further details. The crash brought allied combat losses to 30 aircraft, including 21 belonging to the United States.
Allied ground forces continued their intensifying artillery barrages and hit-and-run strikes. U.S. Marine Cobra helicopter gunships, teaming with Saudi, Kuwaiti and Marine observers, fired on six Iraqi armored personnel carriers, destroying two, Neal said.
A reconnaissance squadron from the British 1st Armored Division provided a screen for royal artillery guns and rockets on a quick raid to the Kuwaiti border, "the first time the British artillery has fired in anger in the gulf war," Brig. Rob McAfee announced in Riyadh. The gunners used remotely piloted vehicles -- small drones mounted with television cameras -- to locate 18 targets ranging from Iraqi artillery batteries to tank concentrations.
Although preparations for a ground assault appear to be in place, one Pentagon official said that "we ought to continue to take a toll" on Iraqi troops before turning to a ground campaign. Continuing the aerial bombardment of Iraq might even render unnecessary an expected U.S. and allied amphibious landing operation on Kuwaiti shores, he added. "We just don't want to get into a ground war too early," before Iraqi forces have suffered further attrition, he said.
Meanwhile, at today's news conference in Moscow, Ignatenko said that Aziz had assured Gorbachev that a four-person CBS television crew who apparently strayed into Iraqi territory from Saudi Arabia were in Baghdad. Ignatenko quoted Gorbachev as saying he hoped the journalists' fate would be resolved favorably.