BAGHDAD, Iraq — As tens of thousands of Iraqis lit candles and packed Baghdad's grand mosque on Sunday, President Saddam Hussein used the birthday of the Islamic prophet Mohammed to open the door to dialogue with his enemies, announcing plans to talk peace with France. But he remained firm on his refusal to withdraw from Kuwait.
In a speech read out for him on Iraq's state-run television, Hussein took pains to defuse the escalating rhetoric of war, calling for debate rather than "threat and intimidation," and appealing for the "peaceful tone of politics" to replace the "tone of armies."
But the Iraqi ruler also condemned in his harshest terms yet mediation efforts by moderate Arab leaders such as King Hussein of Jordan, declaring that any negotiators "who try to stand at a point in the middle . . . are in fact in the ranks of the enemy. They are also in the ranks of the infidel."
The speech was heavily laced with religious rhetoric and consistently savage verbal attacks on the United States, Saudi Arabia and the former rulers of Kuwait. Diplomatic analysts here said that the speech is yet another strong indication that the Iraqi leadership is increasingly concerned by war talk in the West and desperately trying to avoid confrontation at all costs.
Saddam Hussein's announcement that he plans to contact the French leadership in a peace effort--the result, he said, of the "positive tone" of President Francois Mitterrand's address to the U.N. General Assembly last week--is consistent with his strategy to seek out weak links in the multinational force now ranged around his besieged nation. But the analysts added that the Iraqi president offered little ground for any meaningful negotiations.
In making his announcement, Hussein gave no ground on his earlier position to hold onto Kuwait at all costs, stressing that "What concerns us most, and what we are resolved to do, is that things should not be restored to the previous situation before Aug. 2," the date Iraqi troops invaded and conquered Kuwait.
In his U.N. speech last Monday, Mitterrand suggested a formula for a peaceful solution of the gulf crisis, declaring that if Iraq agrees to withdraw from Kuwait and free all foreign hostages, "everything becomes possible."
But Mitterrand was as unyielding in his demand for a restoration of Kuwaiti sovereignty as Hussein is in his insistence that the Iraqi annexation will never be reversed.
"There will be no compromise as long as Iraq refuses to accept the position adopted by the Security Council," Mitterrand said. "Let Iraq withdraw from Kuwait. The sovereignty of that country is no more negotiable than that of any other."
He called for "the restoration of the sovereignty of Kuwait as well as the democratic expression of the Kuwaiti people."
Mitterrand's reference to Kuwaiti democracy could be read as a suggestion that a new government could be elected following Iraqi withdrawal, an election which Iraq could very well win because the invaders have driven much of the Kuwaiti population into exile and have begun to repopulate the country with Iraqi soldiers and civilians.
However, a senior French diplomat said later that Mitterrand's call for restoring Kuwaiti sovereignty "means restoring the regime that was there before." The diplomat said the purpose of the French plan was either to give Hussein a diplomatic fig leaf to cover a pullout from Kuwait or to demonstrate that he is clearly not interested in peace, thus clearing the way for military action to dislodge his troops.
On Sunday, Hussein offered no substantive new initiatives in what Iraqi authorities had billed as a key address. Most analysts here viewed the speech as an effort to cool down the recently escalating military tensions in the gulf and, at the same time, to reinforce his so-called Islamic card.
A color photograph depicting a shirtless President Hussein kissing the shrine at Mecca and another of him in full military dress kneeling in prayer at that most sacred Islamic shrine alternated in the background as his speech was read out by the Iraqi president's now-familiar television surrogate.
He spoke many times of "the gathering of infidels" and "atheists" in the Saudi Arabian desert. He cast the United States as "the haven of evil . . . governed by the devil." He called Palestinian radicals "the heroes of stones," a reference to the frequent street battles in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. And he cast his Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait as a divine mission that brought the Kuwaiti people "nearer to God."
The military buildup in the Persian Gulf, which is growing by the day, amounts to "a crime against God," declared Hussein, whose ruling Arab Baath Socialist Party had, until Aug. 2, cast itself as a secular force attempting to build Iraq into a modern socialist state adamantly opposed to Islamic fundamentalism.