COULD IT be that Saddam Hussein is now maneuvering toward proposing a cease-fire and announcing the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait?
If so, does President Bush have a counter that can command allied support and prevent the Iraqi dictator from turning inevitable military defeat into political victory?
Four seemingly separate events in recent days may in fact be connected, and their possible links suggest that Saddam could be circuitously constructing conditions for his ultimate surprise -- a deal.
First, there is the mysterious arrival in Iran of almost 100 of Iraq's best aircraft.
This is almost certainly not a defection, but an orderly and planned retreat. And it is hard to believe Saturday's story that Baghdad was seeking the planes' release. By dispatching them to Iran, Saddam insures their survival to fight the next war; but the point is, he is already taking them out of this one.
Second and most curious are the Iraqi ground attacks across the Kuwaiti border into Saudi Arabia.
These actions make little sense militarily. In their trenches and protected by artillery, Iraqi forces are formidable. Advancing out in the open, they present easy targets.
It is quite possible, to be sure, that Baghdad took this risk to lure the coalition into a premature ground war. But if Iraqi leaders were listening to recent U.S. pronouncements, they had to bet that Washington would not take the bait.
Maybe Saddam has something else in mind, and perhaps the conduct of the attacks reveals his intent. The attacks were small enough so that Iraqi losses were not severe, but also big enough so that he can now claim the honor of having fought the enemy on every front.
Third and also puzzling is the joint Soviet-American statement on Tuesday that the war could end if Iraq "would make an unequivocal commitment" to leave Kuwait and take "immediate, concrete steps" to do so.
Secretary of State Baker insists that this represents no change in U.S. policy, and I think he believes that. But the phrasing is somewhat different from past flat U.S. demands for the complete removal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait before any discussions can occur.
And the phrasing was the handiwork of the Soviet foreign minister, Aleksandr Bessmertnykh. He fought hard for these words and Baker obliged, his aides said, to maintain Soviet-American unity on the gulf.
It is quite conceivable that Bessmertnykh knew something Baker did not: namely, that the new language might be agreeable to Saddam .
The fourth interesting event is the gathering in Tehran of envoys from France, Algeria and Yemen, and coincidentally, Iraq's deputy prime minister.
This timely conclave to discuss how to end the war followed a little noted meeting Wednesday between President Mubarak of Egypt and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia.
The king spoke of the possibility of an immediate cease-fire if Iraq announces its willingness to vacate Kuwait. And Mubarak talked about being near "end game."
Whether or not these remarks and the other three happenings form part of some grand unfolding scheme, Saddam is not in a bad position to quit now. His forces are largely intact, though they won't be much longer. He can proclaim he has taken the coalition's best punches and withstood the best of Western technology. And he can expect to be anointed as the all-time Arab hero.
If Saddam is indeed circling in this direction, he is surely scheming for the kind of deal being framed by the Soviets, French, Algerians and others. It would be a political and strategic disaster if Bush found himself being herded toward their loose peace terms.
Saddam could play very devilish games after a cease-fire, including stalling on full departure from Kuwait. Also, he could hope that by striking now for a cease-fire/withdrawal arrangement, he would catch the U.S. and its allies off balance and unready to dictate other critical terms such as limiting Iraqi forces and inspecting Iraqi military facilities and stockpiles.
OK, so maybe this is just a lot of conjuring about the four latest moves on the chess board, and in all probability Saddam is still determined to wage bloody war to the end.
Sure, I'm suffering from Iraqanoia. But, but, but the U.S. and its allies have yet to think hard, let alone agree, about what they would do if that Iraqi conjurer hit them with the very surprise they have stopped waiting for -- a "peace" proposal.