WASHINGTON -- Saddam Hussein's abrupt embrace of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's peace initiative -- and President Bush's decision to discuss the plan with his allies instead of rejecting it outright -- has suddenly turned the Persian Gulf war into a game of diplomatic maneuver.
And that could derail Mr. Bush's military plans to cut Mr. Hussein down to size, especially if it leads to lengthy and ambiguous negotiations. As a result of Mr. Hussein's surprise move, the president's strategy could become bedeviled on both political and diplomatic grounds, U.S. officials and other analysts said.
Most fundamentally, yesterday's developments may make it extremely difficult for Mr. Bush to stay with the approach that has been his watchword at every step in the gulf war thus far: "Stick with the plan."
Until now, the 28-nation coalition against Iraq has held together because its goal was clear -- to force an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait -- and because Mr. Hussein's refusal was so firm. But by offering to withdraw from Kuwait if economic sanctions against Iraq are dropped, Mr. Hussein has proposed a deal that may be attractive to some members of the coalition.
If Mr. Bush ultimately rejects the Soviet-Iraqi formulation, he will have to explain, both at home and abroad, why a ground war and its casualties are still necessary even after the U.N. objective of an Iraqi withdrawal is attained.
Mr. Bush must also consider whether rejecting the Soviet initiative would set the two superpowers against each other on major world issue for the first time since the end of the Cold War, placing Mr. Bush's vision of a "new world order" at severe risk.
Now that Iraq has formally offered to withdraw from Kuwait, fulfilling the only official objective of the war that began on Jan. 17, some of Mr. Bush's foreign allies and part of the American public may decide that fighting a ground war is not worth the casualties it would impose.
"It's our worst nightmare come true," said a U.S. military officer involved in planning the ground war. "We were so close."
"We can't accept this," said Geoffrey Kemp, a Middle East specialist who served on the National Security Council staff during the Reagan administration. "Do we negotiate? I suspect we'll come back with a long string of objections. . . .
"What we want is total withdrawal of Iraq with most of its equipment left behind and all the U.N. resolutions in place," he added. "I think the chances of getting all of that now are zero.
"The compromise position would be getting total withdrawal with no conditions in a short time period, and leave most weapons behind. . . . We could live with that," Mr. Kemp said.
The Soviet plan contains no clear deadline for the withdrawal of Iraqi troops, although it calls for a "fixed timetable" for the operation. U.S. officials have said they would insist on a withdrawal within four to six days, a time span short enough to require the Iraqis to leave most of their cumbersome armored vehicles and heavy artillery behind.
At the United Nations, China -- a permanent member of the Security Council, which gave Mr. Bush a mandate to go to war -- said that the Soviet plan was "promising."
"There are elements which, at first view, seem encouraging," said Jacques Andreani, France's ambassador in Washington. France is a key member of the coalition.
"If these resolutions [demanding an Iraqi withdrawal] are met, we would have satisfied our mandate," said Ghazi al Ghosaibi, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Bahrain.
U.S. officials have frequently said in interviews that they hope the war will result in Mr. Hussein's overthrow and the destruction of much of Iraq's conventional armed forces. Mr. Bush himself called on Iraqis last week to oust their president. But the administration has never stated those goals as formal "war aims," largely because they go far beyond the U.N. mandate.
"If Bush rejects [the Soviet plan], it will do a lot of harm to the coalition," said Michael Hudson, a Middle East expert at Georgetown University. "It [the Soviet plan] will be seen by public opinion in much of Europe, even in England, as a serious breakthrough. . . . There will be a feeling in France, Italy and Germany that this is an equitable solution. . . .
"If there is a hidden agenda on our part or others in the coalition [to oust Mr. Hussein] -- and it's not so hidden on the part of the Kuwaitis and the Saudis -- then that agenda will now be exposed," he said. "But if we don't reject the plan, then several members of the coalition will be very nervous, particularly the Kuwaitis and Saudis."
Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian historian at the University of Chicago, was blunter. "I don't think you have a coalition anymore," he said. "Some countries are going to want to do what they intended to do all along, and that is to destroy Iraq."