BAGDAD,IRAQ — BAGHDAD, Iraq -- As the world's highest-stakes poker game heads into what may be its final hand, Iraq is once again raising the ante.
Baghdad is putting out the message that it will stonewall at the critical meeting tomorrow between U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz in Geneva unless Mr. Baker brings more than an ultimatum demanding an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.
"If the U.S. is just going to restate its policy, I don't think the meeting will last more than 30 minutes," an analyst in Baghdad said.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is said to be willing to risk the failure of the long-awaited U.S.-Iraqi dialogue because he still doesn't believe the United States will go to war. Iraqi thinking is that President Bush hasn't made the decision to fight, and that the prospect of heavy casualties and congressional opposition will deter him from doing so.
"Saddam Hussein's circle doesn't think the Americans will attack," a senior Eastern Europe diplomat said.
At the same time, there is virtual unanimity in the diplomatic community here that a direct meeting between Mr. Baker and Mr. Hussein is necessary to get the U.S. message across.
"I can't see the utility of these talks," one Western diplomat said, "unless Mr. Baker comes here."
"Saddam Hussein doesn't believe the U.S. is ready to go to war, but Baker could convince him," another Western diplomat said. "Hussein is still under the impression that Congress has the power."
Mr. Baker has ruled out a post-Geneva trip to Baghdad, although he left open the possibility that he and Mr. Hussein might meet in a neutral country shortly after the Geneva meeting if the talks with Mr. Aziz were a success. However, Mr. Hussein rarely travels outside Iraq.
Mr. Baker is reportedly concerned that at this point a Baghdad visit might encourage Mr. Hussein to drag out talks in hopes of finessing the Jan. 15 United Nations deadline.
What is ironic is that despite this gloomy scenario, Western and Soviet diplomats here portray the Iraqi leader as a man who is looking to make a deal. They say that signs have been accumulating that he believes holding onto Kuwait has become too much of a burden and that he is willing to leave that country, but only if he can do so with his regime, military power, prestige and regional status intact.
"Kuwait is not the issue," one Western diplomat said. "The issue is the survival of the regime and the details of the borders."
"It is not excluded that Hussein would pull out from Kuwait," echoed a senior Soviet diplomat, "but he must certainly have something in return. To pull out without showing some gain is impossible."
The Iraqi view is that Mr. Hussein must emerge from any deal over Kuwait with some tangible return. At this point the potential "victory" is described as "linkage" between the settlement of the Palestinian issue and the Kuwait crisis.
Mr. Hussein devised such linkage in the face-saving formula he first put forward Aug. 12. The idea was that he could ultimately say that as an Arab nationalist he was "sacrificing" Kuwait in order to regain Palestine.
But even that formula is now being described as subject to maneuvering if Washington is seen as flexible about Iraq's needs.
"Linkage is only propaganda," a senior Soviet diplomat said.
Iraq's needs are several. Iraqis are known to want security guarantees that Washington will not attack the Iraqi army if it retreats, or attempt to subvert it at home. They want recognition as a regional economic power with a major say in OPEC pricing as well as an end to economic and technological sanctions against them. And they want recognition as a regional power with at least a fig leaf formula on loose linkage between the Kuwaiti and Palestinian issues.
The U.S. position does not foreclose consideration of at least three of these concerns, a fact Mr. Baker could underline at the Geneva talks. Washington has pledged it would not attack retreating Iraqi troops; if the crisis is resolved without war, Iraq would still remain a major regional power; and, the United States has endorsed consideration of an international peace conference on the Middle East.
Washington sees the Geneva meeting as a last opportunity to stress the need for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait by the Jan. 15 deadline; any reassurances about Iraq's future would be secondary. Iraq sees the meeting as the beginning of a bargaining process that would go on long beyond Jan. 15, and at which the United States must acknowledge Iraq's role in the region.