BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Despite a warning from Moscow, Iraq is delaying the departure of 2,300 Soviet advisers now working at oil and military installations who Soviet officials fear could become targets in any attack on Iraq by U.S.-led forces in the Persian Gulf, Eastern European diplomats said yesterday.
A high-level Soviet delegation arrived in Baghdad last night to begin negotiations to reduce the economic penalties Iraqi officials have told Moscow they will impose if the Soviet government walks away from several large oil, hydroelectric and military contracts that were employing about 7,000 Soviet technicians and other specialists when Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2.
Moscow is seeking to negotiate a "temporary suspension" of its contracts with the Iraqi government in hopes that they can be resumed after a resolution of the crisis and the lifting of the United Nations trade embargo against Iraq, the Eastern European diplomats said.
The dispute follows a warning to Baghdad Nov. 30 by Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze that Moscow would not hesitate to send military forces to the region to protect its citizens.
On Dec. 4, Baghdad said that all Soviet experts wishing to leave the country were free to do so as of the next day but that it would hold the Soviet government responsible "for reneging on contracts."
About 80 of the Soviet specialists still in Iraq are working on military contracts, including contracts to maintain high-technology combat aircraft in Iraq's air force and air defense networks, diplomats said.
"I can't say that the specialists make a substantial contribution to the military," a diplomat said. "But their advice may be valuable."
The diplomat added that acquiring spare parts was now more important to the Iraqis but that expert Soviet advice could be important in helping the Iraqis devise methods to work around shortages.
So far, Soviet officials have made it clear to Iraqi military authorities that as each contract expires, Moscow will not extend the term and will evacuate the Soviet specialists who were working under the contract.
But Iraq has controlled the pace of Soviet evacuation by requiring that each specialist obtain an exit visa, which requires a letter certifying that the person has fulfilled all contractual obligations.
More than 300 Soviet technicians have left Baghdad in the last week. But under the current pace of evacuation, there could still be a significant number of Soviet military technicians in Iraq on Jan. 15, the date after which the U.N. Security Council has authorized the use of military force to evict Iraq from Kuwait.