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Saudi hints of offering deal to Iraq

Saudi Arabia's defense minister, the country's third-ranking official, has raised the possibility of allowing Iraq to have some Kuwaiti territory as an outlet on the Persian Gulf. The comments by Prince Sultan Ibn Abdel-Aziz, considered the official wielding the most influence with King Fahd, marked the first time since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2 that a ranking Saudi leader has so much as hinted at a territorial compromise with Iraq.

In comments to Arab journalists, Sultan, a brother of the king, made an apparent reference to Iraq's demands for an outlet on the Persian Gulf: "Saudi Arabia has said, and says now, that giving rights, including territorial brotherly concessions _ given willingly _ is a matter of pride for the Arab nation."

The remarks, which helped push oil prices down $5 a barrel in London, prompted the Saudi authorities to rush on Monday to assure the United States and others that there was no change in the Saudi view that Iraq must heed the United Nations Security Council's demand for a complete withdrawal from Kuwait. Similarly, the Kuwaiti government in exile rushed to reaffirm its opposition to any compromise with Iraq.

Saudi television, which broadcast Sultan's remarks in full Monday night, said he was misinterpreted.

Complicating the situation was the sudden and unexpected arrival Monday night of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, whose country is closely allied with Saudi Arabia and who has consistently advocated the unconditional withdrawal of Iraq from Kuwait.

While Egyptian officials said Mubarak was in Saudi Arabia to visit Egyptian troops, some diplomats said he may have come to seek clarification of Saudi positions.

Sultan's remarks, and the Saudis' quick effort to interpret them anew, came on a day of other curious developments.

President Saddam Hussein of Iraq suggested that he might release all French hostages and a number of elderly and sick Americans held captive in Iraq.

But it was not clear whether Hussein was trying to signal a change in policy.

After meeting with Hussein in Baghdad, the head of a private organization said Iraq plans to free some Americans it holds hostage.

"There is a definite commitment by the Iraqi leadership that some Americans will be released," said Salim Mansour, leader of the Iraqi American Foundation. "We don't want to talk about figures or names at the moment."

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney raised a troubling issue Monday. He said Iraqi military forces captured some of Kuwait's cache of U.S.-made Hawk anti-aircraft missiles and apparently are trying to learn how to use them. Many U.S. and allied military aircraft in the gulf region reportedly have no ready means of protection against the Hawks.