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Gulf Countdown

TENSION hung in the air after the Security Council vote Thursday authorizing the use of force against Saddam Hussein unless he withdraws from Kuwait by Jan. 15. Happily, within hours the mood was lifted by President Bush's diplomatic overture to Iraq. It is well that Secretary of State James Baker will meet with Saddam, and that Iraqi Foreign Minister Tareq Aziz will sit down with Mr. Bush. It is premature, however, to conclude that these contacts make a peaceful solution to the Gulf crisis inevitable.

Bush said Friday that he regarded the main purpose of the talks to apprise Saddam clearly of the United States's seriousness, to pierce any ignorance or miscalculation that may fog the Iraqi leader's thinking. But the meetings will doubtless involve more than just an opportunity for Saddam to read George Bush's lips.

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How much more? Bush has repeatedly said, and rightly, that he will not ``negotiate'' with Saddam if that means cutting a deal that will reward the Iraqi dictator for his aggression. Yet in many corners of the globe there is hope, if expressed privately, that a deal may in fact be worked out - say, a withdrawal from Kuwait that will leave Iraq with some border concessions and an agreement on disputed oil fields.

In the end, an accommodation along these lines may be reached. But it should be negotiated after Saddam pulls out of Kuwait, and only with the full diplomatic participation of Kuwait's government. The deal shouldn't be imposed on Kuwait, as Czechoslovakia was carved up at Munich.

The indications are that Saddam will use the meeting with the US to press his view that any peaceful solution must be part of a comprehensive regional agreement that covers Israel's occupation of Arab lands. This issue should not be on this table. Granted, the Palestinian issue must be resolved if peace is ever to come to the Mideast. But that is a matter for negotiations after Iraq leaves Kuwait. An Israeli-Palestinian settlement will not be achieved at the point of Saddam Hussein's gun.

So what do the US and Iraq have to talk about? The US, on behalf of the United Nations allies, must assure Saddam that the consequences of withdrawal for him and his nation will be better than resistance. Meanwhile, Mr. Bush will have tried the course of direct contact. Let's pray that this succeeds.

The clock ticks down: six weeks and counting. Keep talking as though lives depend on it. They do.

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