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Gorbachev hints Iraq may consider leaving Kuwait

With a senior Soviet official engaged in a new effort to negotiate a settlement to the Persian Gulf crisis, President Mikhail Gorbachev hinted Saturday that Iraq is reconsidering its refusal to withdraw from Kuwait. "There are some signs the top leadership in Iraq has understood that a solution cannot be found through ultimatums," Gorbachev said on a visit to Spain. "In the next days, things will become clearer."

The Soviet president's personal emissary to the Middle East, Yevgeny Primakov, arrived in Baghdad, Iraq on Saturday for his second meeting with President Saddam Hussein in a month. "The Soviet Union has this possibility of finding a solution," Gorbachev said.

Gorbachev flies to Paris today, with the Persian Gulf crisis certain to feature prominently in his talks with President Francois Mitterrand. Along with the Soviet Union, France has been seeking ways to persuade Iraq to pull out of Kuwait without losing face.

Warning of the consequences of a military conflict in the Gulf, both to the "women, children and old people" of Iraq and to foreign hostages, including 3,000 Soviet specialists, the Soviet leader said "the moment has perhaps come for the Arab world to become fully involved and to give its word."

He added that, while Iraq's aggression should be condemned, a political solution must be sought more energetically.

"We cannot just freeze the current situation," he said. "It is too dangerous. We must act."

But Gorbachev, who noted Friday that peace efforts should not be interpreted by Baghdad as signs of weakness, also had a word of caution for Iraq.

"President Hussein should not base his calculations around the idea of dividing us, of creating a split among us," he said, referring to the anti-Iraqi coalition. "If he thinks like this, he is very wrong."

The Soviet leader argued that during this first major crisis of the post-Cold War period the international community had acted through the United Nations "in an extraordinarily uniform, decisive and compact way," a fact that demonstrates the enormous change that has taken place in international relations.

Anti-Iraq vote postponed

The Soviet Union Saturday unexpectedly asked the Security Council to postpone approving a new resolution condemning Iraq, lending further weight to reports that a new peace initiative was under way.

The Security Council members were already seated at their table, documents in hand and ready to vote on the 10th anti-Iraq resolution since the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, when Soviet Ambassador Yuli Vorontsov rushed up to confer with U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering.

They met privately with the French, British and Chinese ambassadors, and then the Soviets requested a suspension of the vote until Monday. As is the case for any of the five permanent council members, the Soviet request was granted without debate.

Vorontsov said the postponement would "create a better atmosphere in Baghdad" for a meeting there today between Hussein and Primakov, the top Soviet expert on the Middle East.

"It's too soon to speculate, but I think they're talking seriously there," Vorontsov said after leaving the council chambers with Iraqi Ambassador Abdul Amir Anbari.

The resolution under consideration Saturday called on all nations to begin collecting evidence of Iraqi war crimes in Kuwait and preparing their financial claims against the regime for losses suffered as a result of the invasion.

The resolution also would demand an immediate end to Iraqi hostage-taking, looting and pillaging in Kuwait, the nation it invaded on Aug. 2; call on Iraq to resupply the few remaining foreign embassies there with food and water; and warn Hussein that if he failed to obey these orders, the Security Council would "take further measures."

Threat to Iraq "serious'

President Bush said Saturday that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was beginning to realize that the forces facing him were "deadly serious" and that this enhanced prospects for a peaceful solution of the Persian Gulf crisis.

"I think as he sees the U.S. forces moving in conjunction with many Arab country forces, in conjunction with many European country forces, on land and on the sea, he's taking another look because we are deadly serious," Bush told reporters.

He was speaking at a news conference in Honolulu, where he met 11 Pacific island leaders to discuss economic and security issues.

Bush's comments followed Defense Secretary Cheney's announcement this week that 100,000 more U.S. troops might be sent to the Gulf to reinforce the more than 210,000 U.S. military personnel already there.

The president said the purpose of the deployment was to make clear to Hussein that aggression does not pay.

French hostages head home

About 300 French hostages held in Iraq and Kuwait are expected home late Monday, probably with diplomats from France's embassy in Kuwait who will evacuate their mission, a French Foreign Ministry spokesman said Saturday.

The ministry spokesman said the flight would include 67 French nationals who had been held as "human shields" at Iraqi strategic sites.

France has insisted it did not make any deals with Iraq to secure the release of the hostages.

_ Information from the New York Times, Reuters, the Associated Press and the Washington Post was used in this report.