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Israel-Syria Pact Looks Likely, Christopher Says


DAMASCUS, Syria — Using some of the most upbeat language he has ever applied to the knotty negotiations between Syria and Israel, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher said Tuesday that he is increasingly hopeful that the bitter enemies are closing in on a comprehensive peace agreement.

"We are moving in the right direction," Christopher told reporters after meeting for almost four hours with Syrian President Hafez Assad to relay negotiating points he picked up the day before from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

"I think the parties are determined to try to achieve a comprehensive peace and there is hope that can be achieved," he said. "I am more convinced than ever of the seriousness of both President Assad . . . and Prime Minister Rabin."

After a detour to Kuwait today to assure the emirate's leaders and officials of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council of U.S. determination to prevent Iraq from renewing aggression against Kuwait, Christopher will return to Jerusalem tonight to report to Rabin and will meet again with Assad on Thursday before heading home Friday.

Despite Christopher's optimistic account, Israel and Syria have not begun the sort of face-to-face negotiations that U.S. officials believe will be needed to nail down a peace treaty ending almost half a century of icy hostility, intermittent armed skirmishes and two major wars. All of the bargaining is being done through American go-betweens.

A senior State Department official, who attended the Christopher-Assad talks, said none of the troublesome issues dividing the parties has yet been completely resolved and "in the end, if it doesn't fit together, it doesn't amount to anything."

But he made it clear that the gap has been narrowed on at least some of the points of disagreement. Neither the official nor Christopher would discuss any of the details.

The senior official said both Rabin and Assad are now asking detailed questions about the position of the other, a sharp change from an earlier stage of the talks in which each side stated and restated its own position.

"They have begun to look at issues to find where there might be a basis for common ground," the official said. "We brought some things here . . . and we are going to take some things back."

Israel and Syria have agreed in principle that any pact will involve a "land for peace" swap in which Israel will return to Syria some or all of the Golan Heights in exchange for peaceful relations. But there are still wide gaps between the two countries on such issues as the speed and extent of Israeli withdrawal, the nature of the peace and new arrangements to guarantee the security of both countries.

The senior official said the negotiating pace is slow and deliberate because Rabin and Assad "are the kind of people that, if they are going to do a deal, they want everything very clearly understood."

Christopher also said Assad assured him that Syria strongly supports U.S military measures intended to prevent Iraq from repeating its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Syria sent troops to the U.S-led international force that thwarted the earlier Iraqi aggression.

Following his talks with Assad, Christopher flew to Amman, where he won a ringing endorsement from King Hussein of Jordan for U.S. efforts to head off an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. After the news conference, Christopher aides said the king's reaction was much stronger than they had anticipated before the secretary of state and the monarch met over dinner at the royal palace.

Hussein expressed "very deep sadness, disappointment and anger" at the Iraqi troop movements, which he said will undermine any chance Iraq may have had to obtain relief from the United Nations' economic sanctions. He said Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's maneuver was "totally irresponsible."

Although the king insisted that his nation never supported Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Amman was widely regarded as sympathetic to Baghdad.

Iraq was then able to circumvent a U.N.-imposed embargo, largely with Jordanian complicity. This time, however, the king said his country would "stand in the face of" Iraqi aggression.

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