PARIS -- French Defense Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement pressed Washington yesterday to agree to an international peace conference on the Middle East as a means of getting Saddam Hussein's forces out of Kuwait, in the most open challenge of U.S. policy from an ally since the anti-Iraq coalition was formed in August.
"The United States could make a very little gesture that would permit Saddam Hussein to make a much greater one and pull his troops out of Kuwait," Mr. Chevenement told reporters here yesterday.
His remarks came a day after Secretary of State James A. Baker III flatly ruled out such a linkage after talks with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz in Geneva.
The defense minister also said there was common agreement that an international conference to settle the Israeli-Palestinian dispute would become necessary after any conflict with Iraq ended. "So why not announce it today if it allows us to spare this conflict?" he asked.
Mr. Chevenement, a founding member of the Franco-Iraqi Friendship Society, has been known as a reluctant partner in the confrontation with Iraq. He has earned several veiled yet public reproaches for his lukewarm participation from French President Francois Mitterrand since the start of the crisis.
He also said that casualty estimates of 100,000 dead that he had made in August would be "rather lower than reality" if war were to erupt.
He suggested that French forces might stop fighting if the military mission strayed from one of evacuating Kuwait to, for example, destroying Iraq's military potential.
He said French forces would be engaged for "a determined mission and a limited time."
During a news conference held before the Baker-Aziz talks ended Wednesday, Mr. Mitterrand prepared French public opinion for a possible war, while leaving the door open for independent French efforts to resolve the crisis. He said that French officials had been in touch with Moroccan, Soviet, German, Spanish, Yugoslav and Algerian foreign ministers to seek a solution to the impasse.
But those efforts appeared troubled yesterday, with little room for maneuver after the firm refusal of Mr. Aziz to withdraw from Kuwait and of Mr. Baker to discuss an international conference.
"When we look at the world's horizon, we see only black clouds," French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas said after the Geneva talks.
France has seemed to incur the displeasure of its European Community partners for its efforts to carve out an independent stance. Denmark, for example, warned that a separate peace proposal by France could threaten EC solidarity.
The EC rejected last week a French peace plan that explicitly linked an Iraqi withdrawal to the calling of an international peace conference on the Middle East.