Ultimatum at High Noon WAR IN THE GULF

February 23, 1991

Despite some superpower tensions, the United States and the Soviet Union are continuing to play their bad cop/good cop routine, hoping to force Iraq into defeat. With each flexing of U.S. muscle and each burst of sweet talk from the Kremlin, the trap closes ever tighter on Saddam Hussein and his battered armies.

At this stage, Presidents George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev find themselves a vital fortnight apart on timing, with Mr. Bush demanding Iraq's withdrawal a week from today and Mr. Gorbachev willing to give him 21 days. But since Mr. Bush has the guns and Mr. Gorbachev only the discomfort of seeing the despicable Saddam putting the torch to Kuwaiti oil facilities even as his foreign minister talks peace in Moscow, the odds are the U.S. timetable will largely prevail if a ground war is avoided.

The duration of the Iraqi pullout is important. A fast exit would require Mr. Hussein's commanders to leave behind vast quantities of heavy armor, chemical munitions and other weaponry, thus reducing the Iraqi military threat. A slow exit would allow too much of his war machine to survive, and we suspect Moscow knows this all too well despite its yearnings for a power base in the gulf.

Mr. Gorbachev's spokesmen seemed to go out of their way yesterday to keep Iraq at a stiff arm's length after being embarrassed by their linkage to the Baghdad regime. They described their eight-point plan revealed Thursday night not as a joint effort but as a "point of departure" to which they had brought the Iraqi side. A Gorbachev aide even said he felt Mr. Bush's ultimatum for the Iraqi withdrawal to begin today was justified and a "litmus test" for Mr. Hussein's intentions.

Soon thereafter, the Soviet eight points were reduced to six points that a foreign office spokesman described as "considerably tougher as regards the responsibility of Iraq." This included the start of withdrawal after only a one-day cease fire and release of all prisoners of war within three days, only a day longer than Mr. Bush's demand. Still missing from the Soviet agenda was any reference or linkage to the Palestinian issue -- this in deference to the United States and Israel.

While the Soviets reiterated their belief that a pullout would make pending U.N. resolutions against Iraq invalid, Mr. Bush ignored that sensitive question -- perhaps on the assumption that a U.S. veto could block any effort to rescind the resolutions. At the same time, Mr. Bush did not repeat his hopes for Mr. Hussein's ouster, perhaps to avoid complicating negotiations.

Of course, the best calculations of the two superpowers could be scrambled by Saddam Hussein's obduracy and bloody-mindedness. Should that be the case, the long-dreaded land war could start with the expiration of Mr. Bush's ultimatum at high noon today. The best hope for peace remains the superpower good cop/bad cop routine.

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