MOSCOW -- Iraqi President Saddam Hussein indicated to a high-level Soviet envoy earlier this month that he might be prepared to withdraw his troops from most of Kuwait if he were permitted to widen Iraq's access to the Persian Gulf, the Novosti news agency reported yesterday.
Citing confidential sources, Novosti also said that Soviet military intelligence had evidence of the likely Iraqi invasion of Kuwait two weeks before it happened but failed to inform President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
Baghdad swiftly denied Novosti's report on the possible territorial compromise, repeating Iraq's assertion that Kuwait has irrevocably become the 19th province of Iraq.
But Novosti is a semi-official agency with top-level government and KGB sources, and its account is likely to have originated with the Soviet envoy, Yevgeny M. Primakov.
Mr. Primakov, a Middle East expert and aide to Mr. Gorbachev, said after his meeting Oct. 6 with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that he was more optimistic about prospects for a peaceful settlement of the Persian Gulf conflict.
But he has declined to elaborate on the reason for his change of views. The Novosti report, published yesterday by the newspaper Rabochaya Tribuna, offered the first concrete information about the character of the talks.
Novosti said Mr. Hussein never referred during his conversation with Mr. Primakov to the "historic rights" of Iraq to Kuwaiti territory, which it called a sign of a "certain softening of position" by the Iraqi president.
From Mr. Hussein's words, Mr. Primakov drew the conclusion that Iraq might pull out of most of Kuwait, retaining only southern Rumaila and the islands of Warba and Bubiyan, thereby widening its narrow access to the Persian Gulf.
Novosti said that Mr. Primakov repeated the Soviet position condemning the invasion of Kuwait and demanding a pullout and that he told Mr. Hussein: "In the event that American troops might strike a blow against Iraqi territory, the Soviet Union would take no action to prevent such a blow."
On the question of when Soviet officials learned of Iraq's invasion plans, Novosti said information came from satellite photos, radio communication monitoring and reports from Soviet military specialists in Iraq, as well as "traditional methods" -- presumably intelligence agents working inside Iraq.
The GRU, the Soviet military intelligence agency, had evidence two weeks in advance of the Aug. 2 invasion that "aggression" was being prepared.
But GRU analysts thought Iraq would occupy only the northern part of Kuwait, and Defense Ministry higher-ups were skeptical even about that possibility. Therefore the ministry did not inform Mr. Gorbachev, Novosti said.
Immediately after learning of the invasion, Mr. Gorbachev reportedly called Defense Minister Dmitry T. Yazov and reprimanded him for the failure to detect and report the Iraqi plans, Novosti said.
Since this version conveniently absolves Mr. Gorbachev of any prior knowledge of Iraq's plans, the possibility cannot be excluded that it may be a deliberate leak designed to shift any Western resentment from the Soviet president to military officials.
Novosti also reported yesterday that the 5,000 Soviet citizens still in Iraq were closer in status to the Western hostages than Soviet officials had admitted publicly.
It said Mr. Primakov's talks on the possible departure of the Soviet workers were "extremely complex." Iraq demanded "huge payments" for any worker who left for home early in breach of maintenance and training contracts.
Only with great effort did Mr. Primakov manage to obtain a promise for the departure within the next month of 1,500 of the 5,000 Soviet citizens in Iraq, Novosti reported.
[The Associated Press quoted Soviet diplomats in Baghdad as saying yesterday that Iraq had agreed to allow 120 of the Soviet military advisers and oil technicians to leave.]