AS the United States and Iraq prepare for direct talks, scheduled to begin here within a week, diplomacy has the momentum over war at the moment. The momentum, however, does not necessarily run toward resolving the Gulf confrontation on the terms of the US and its allies.
The meeting between Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz and President Bush in Washington Dec. 17 is likely to serve as a prelude to a more eventful meeting between Secretary of State James Baker III and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. The administration had asked to hold the meeting sometime between Dec. 20 and Jan. 3; Saddam rejected those dates, proposing Jan. 12 instead - three days before a UN Security Council deadline for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait.
``The whole thing can shift depending on what Baker says coming out of that meeting,'' says Marvin Feuerwerger, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs and a senior Defense Department official until last summer.
What happens in the talks largely hangs on American resolve to hold a hard line in winning the unconditional withdrawal of Iraq from Kuwait - by force if necessary - and how Saddam perceives that resolve.
Experts are split on whether Saddam is looking for a way out of Kuwait, or most of it, or if he considers his hold on it growing tighter. Some key events last week changed the political dynamics of the Gulf confrontation and have made conditions somewhat easier for the Bush administration to seek compromise. But they also may have made a hard line more difficult to hold.
As the second week of hearings on Gulf policy progressed on Capitol Hill last week, partisan divisions opened up more sharply. Democrats were speaking out increasingly adamantly against attacking Iraqi positions in Kuwait until the sanctions have been in place for many more months.
``I think they have undercut the president very badly,'' says an international law expert who prefers to remain unnamed. ``My guess is after the Democratic performance on Capitol Hill last week, Saddam will show less flexibility than ever.''
On Thursday, Saddam announced that all foreign hostages would be freed. If he follows through, then the US and its allies will have won one of their objectives without any trade-offs or compromises.
Most expert observers see a practical decision in this move. Saddam traded in an asset that was clearly of no military value - since the hostages were not apparently deterring American plans to attack Iraqi positions - for some political goodwill.
This is the second time Saddam has played virtually the same hostage card within weeks. He first announced that he would begin releasing hostages around Christmas and continue over the next three months.
The latest hostage announcement has weakened the Bush administration's case for war. Democrats, such as Sen. Paul Sarbanes of Maryland, credited Saddam's move to the sanctions againt Iraq. With such good news in hand, war seemed unnecessary.
In the end, Mr. Feuerwerger sees no strategic loss to the Bush administration from Saddam's hostage release - only the good news that the hostages may soon be free. ``This would have made it difficult to use force in the near term,'' he says. ``But the US had no intention of using force before next January.'' If the hostages are out by Christmas, as an Iraqi official has suggested, then ``one week after Christmas, that story is finished,'' Feuerwerger says.
A burst of diplomatic activity was also set in motion last week as a result of Bush's Nov. 30 invitation to Iraq for direct talks. The European Community said it would seek direct talks of its own. Like the US, the goal of the European talks is to impress on Saddam that he risks war if he does not withdraw from Kuwait. In reality, says Feuerwerger, such talks can only risk opening cracks in the allied position.
Saddam's Arab supporters - Jordan, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Yemen - had leaders in Baghdad last week discussing the need for ``regional'' solutions to the confrontation over Kuwait. Most important, this means linking a Gulf settlement to some action on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. The Europeans tend to favor a conference for discussing such regional issues once the Gulf crisis is resolved. Although the Europeans hold to the demand that Iraq withdraw from Kuwait unconditionally, the promise of such a conference could motivate such a withdrawal - since Saddam could then claim credit for it.
The US has resisted offering Saddam any opportunity for such credit. Even though the Bush administration was working toward a regional Middle East conference before the invasion, US officials decided last week to put off signing a UN resolution endorsing such a conference last week to avoid offering Saddam any chance to claim a role.