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SPECIAL REPORT: WITNESS TO WAR : Memoirs From the Battle Front, the Diplomatic Front and the Home Front : The Ground War : 'It's Incredible; Every Soldier That I Saw Surrendered' : Peace talks sputtered and allied tanks and helicopters pounced. The attack swept toward the Euphrates and rolled over the elite Republican Guard. Kuwait was free again, and Americans held Iraqi soil.

March 12, 1991

MOSCOW

In Moscow, there was one last effort to avert a land war.

President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, alerted by Soviet intelligence that George Bush was ready to open the allied ground offensive, began some of the most intense diplomacy of the war.

Gorbachev summoned his most trusted officials, a Kremlin crisis group that Yevgeny M. Primakov, his top Middle East adviser, describes as "men who understand each other at half a word." He ordered Primakov to return to Baghdad. The envoy had been there not long before in an unsuccessful attempt to find peace. Now, Gorbachev told him to try again.

In his lengthy story in Pravda, Primakov recounts the effort.

He writes of making it to the Rashid Hotel in downtown Baghdad by 11 p.m. Monday, Feb. 11, after traveling by road from the Iranian border in a fast-moving cavalcade of cars smeared with mud to hide them from attacking allied warplanes. There was no electricity. Primakov's room was lit by a kerosene lantern. Jerrycans of water stood in the bathroom.

He might have stayed at the Soviet Embassy, but most of its 13 staff members were living in steel tubes, about 7 feet in diameter, that had been sunk in the embassy garden as bomb shelters. Viktor Posuvalyuk, the ambassador, was staying in the tubes to keep up the spirits of his staff, composing and singing his own songs and playing his guitar. But for Primakov, Posuvalyuk thought, the Rashid, where foreign journalists were staying, might be safer.

There was a meeting with Tarik Aziz, the Iraqi foreign minister, the next morning. It began with fierce allegations of Soviet perfidy. "It was almost that Soviet policy had given the go-ahead for the war," Primakov recalled. "Aziz remained very sharp, very accusatory, even after we were strolling alone.

"I told Aziz that Iraq was making one mistake after another by trying to preserve what was beyond preservation and driving itself deeper into a dead-end. When the stream of abuse continued, I said we had not come to listen to this kind of talk. If it would be the same from Saddam Hussein, perhaps I should not waste my time."

Primakov, nonetheless, met with Saddam at a government guest house. When the Iraqi leader took off his trench coat and unbuckled his gun belt, the Soviet envoy was startled by Saddam's appearance. He must have lost 15 to 20 kilograms (about 33 to 44 pounds) since their meeting in October. "He was so much thinner," Primakov wrote.

"The Americans absolutely favor a broad-scale land operation as a result of which the Iraqi task force in Kuwait will be completely destroyed," Primakov said he told Saddam. "Do you understand--destroyed?"

Primakov then outlined the Soviet proposal: announcement of an Iraqi withdrawal, complete and unconditional, from Kuwait in the shortest possible time.

"Here, for the first time, I saw change," Primakov wrote.

"Saddam Hussein started to ask questions--how could he be sure his soldiers would not be shot in the back as they withdrew? Would air strikes at Iraq be stopped after the troops left? Would sanctions be lifted?"

Still, Saddam procrastinated. He would send Aziz to Moscow to negotiate. Primakov cut him off. "There is no time left--you must act immediately."

The Soviets became convinced that Saddam was preparing the Iraqis for a retreat, but the haggling went on for several more days. Aziz shuttled between Baghdad and Moscow, each time giving a little more ground.

"Now, time is the crucial factor," Gorbachev said at one point, in a stern warning to the Iraqis. "If you value the lives of your countrymen and the fate of Iraq, you must act immediately." There could be no conditions attached to an Iraqi withdrawal. To insist would only bring a ground attack.

Slowly, through "excruciatingly difficult" negotiations, the Iraqis moved closer to the American demands. They wanted three months to withdraw; Gorbachev talked them down to six weeks. But by now, Bush had issued his ultimatum--one week to pull out of Kuwait, with the withdrawal to begin by noon, New York time, on Saturday, Feb. 23.

Gorbachev eventually got Baghdad's agreement to a plan that he thought was good enough to at least bid for more time. He telephoned leaders of the anti-Iraq coalition. He said "a significant shift" had occurred.

The remaining differences, Primakov wrote, "were insignificant and amenable to agreement at the U.N. Security Council within one or two days."

Time, however, was finally running out on the American clock.

BAGHDAD

During the back-and-forth with the Soviets, Saddam and his ruling Revolutionary Command Council had uttered, publicly, the words withdrawal and Kuwait for the first time in the same sentence. It was enough for most Iraqis.

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