WASHINGTON — With increasing intensity since the Persian Gulf crisis began on Aug. 2, the United States and Iraq have been hurtling toward a precipice beyond which lies war and lasting agony.
The world is watching anxiously, wondering if there is any formula short of bloodshed under which President Bush and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein can resolve their impasse. The situation is trigger-tense. Even an accident could touch off a war.
The question becomes more urgent daily: Is there a way back from the brink?
Early returns on the diplomatic front are not encouraging. A chastened U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, who had hoped to see some sign of flexibility in weekend talks with Iraq's Foreign Minister, Tarik Aziz, left the region deeply disappointed and alarmed by the gravity of the situation.
He said any fresh U.N. diplomatic initiative will await the outcome of next weekend's hastily planned summit meeting between Bush and Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev in Helsinki. Some hope that the former superpower rivals can devise a scheme that would peaceably end the standoff in the desert.
Also, Jordan's King Hussein continues to try to play peacemaker, and a deeply divided Arab League is attempting to find a diplomatic end to the bitter split within its ranks. Even Libya's Moammar Kadafi has come up with a peace plan.
Yet there remains deep skepticism that war can be averted. A senior Egyptian military officer places the likelihood of a diplomatic resolution at "two percent." American officials are publicly hopeful that Hussein will back down in the face of international pressure, U.N. sanctions and the threat of military action. But privately they concede that few in Washington believe he will.
"Both sides are in a corner," said a Western analyst with long experience in the Middle East. "Saddam's mental makeup is such that he is not going to back down. I don't think Bush, representing the West, is prepared to allow him the face-saving things that he would need to get out. It is headed at least to a stalemate--and that leads to confrontational events."
Still, the diplomats continue their efforts.
Here is a look at the key problems, players and possible options in the Persian Gulf puzzle.
Analysts say any resolution of the crisis must address five fundamental questions:
* The status of Kuwait.
* The thousands of foreign hostages that Baghdad is holding.
* The worldwide economic quarantine of Iraq.
* The future of Hussein and his military machine.
* And the long-term security of the Middle East.
The central problem--the issue that began the confrontation, and the key to ending it--is Kuwait.
Bush, backed by the U.N. Security Council, is unswerving in his demand that Hussein surrender Kuwait and restore its royal rulers, the Sabah dynasty. Yet, Hussein has given no indication that he will consider doing so. Last week, Baghdad issued new maps of the Persian Gulf that show Kuwait as Iraq's 19th province.
Short of Hussein's unconditional capitulation, is there any deal that would be acceptable to the United States?
Some think it's possible to devise an arrangement that would simultaneously restore Kuwaiti sovereignty and accommodate Hussein's initial grievances with the Kuwaiti regime over oil prices, territory and debt.
On paper, the possibilities seem numerous. Iraq might pull its troops out of Kuwait in return for a U.S. troop pullout from Saudi Arabia; both armies could be replaced by U.N. and Arab League peacekeeping forces. The hostages might be released in return for a pledge by the United States that it would make no reprisals, and the U.N. embargo could be lifted. Kuwait might hold elections to form a new democratic government that would not necessarily include the Sabah dynasty. Iraq might be guaranteed access to Persian Gulf ports for its oil. The long-term security of the region would be ensured by the peacekeeping forces.
Jordan's King Hussein is trying to broker just such a deal. Jordanian officials argue that the call for unconditional surrender puts Iraq's Hussein in a corner from which he would rather fight than compromise. They also have been hard-pressed to hide their antipathy for the Sabah family. "The Sabahs are gone as far as we are concerned," a prominent member of the Jordanian Parliament said.
But U.S. officials aren't buying King Hussein's plan, dismissing it as a thinly disguised effort to pay off Saddam Hussein for pulling back his forces. Withdrawal from Kuwait is "non-negotiable," senior Bush Administration officials insist.
The hostages, too, are pawns in the chess game. A senior Arab military official scoffs that Hussein is only holding the thousands of foreign hostages he has interned in Iraq and Kuwait in an effort to obscure the issue of Kuwaiti sovereignty--hoping that the West will be satisfied with the hostages' freedom instead. "He's playing for time," he said. "His objective is to keep Kuwait."