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IRAQ KEEPS GRIP ON 2,300 SOVIETS MOSCOW NEGOTIATING WITH BAGHDAD; BAKER STILL HOPEFUL PEACE TALKS CAN BEGIN

Iraq is refusing to let 2,300 Soviet experts leave the country until a dispute with Moscow over contracts is resolved, a Soviet Embassy spokesman in Baghdad said today.

A Soviet delegation began talks today to try to negotiate the departure of the advisers. Most of them work in the oil industry, which has been virtually paralyzed by United Nations sanctions imposed since Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State James A. Baker III said that he still hopes to revive the stalled American proposal for talks with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein but that no "back channel" talks are going on.

He said he wants to travel to Baghdad to see Saddam by Jan. 3 at the latest. But he gave no indication Saddam was about to agree to any of 15 dates, from Dec. 20 through Jan. 3, acceptable to Washington.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz was to have met with President Bush in Washington today, but the meeting was scuttled by a disagreement over when Baker would hold the subsequent meeting with Saddam.

The Iraqi leadership said today that Baghdad rejected a one-sided "dictation of dates" for a meeting with the United States and insisted again it would never give up conquered Kuwait.

The statement was issued after a joint meeting of the ruling Revolution Command Council and Baath Party, headed by Saddam, the official Iraqi News Agency said.

Baker made his remarks Sunday while flying to Brussels, Belgium, for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers. In
opening the meeting, NATO Secretary-General Manfred Woerner today emphasized the European allies' willingness to go to war with Iraq if peaceful efforts to resolve the Persian Gulf crisis fail.

"The brutal aggression and violation of international law committed by Saddam Hussein . . . will not be allowed to stand," he said.

"The solidarity of all allies and their determination to implement in full the Security Council resolutions against
Iraq remain firm," he said.

Canada's external affairs minister, Joe Clark, said Saddam was playing games and should stop trying to manipulate what might be his last chance to avert war.

The Soviet Embassy spokesman in Iraq said the delegation was negotiating over economic penalties Iraq had threatened to impose if Moscow withdrew its experts from several large oil, hydroelectric and military contracts.

"Iraq has insisted that the Soviet government announce its full responsibility for this problem," he said.

Soviet advisers and diplomats predicted the discussions would be difficult.

The Soviet Union, formerly Baghdad's key ally and armorer, has actively supported U.S.-led moves to try to force Iraq out of Kuwait.

Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze said last month that Moscow would not hesitate to use force to protect its 3,300 citizens then still in Iraq.

Iraq described the comments as hostile but announced on Dec. 4 that all Soviet citizens could leave "provided the Soviet government alone bears the responsibility for the effects of breaches of contracts."

About 1,000 workers returned to the Soviet Union after the Dec. 4 announcement, including 170 last week. Before the invasion of Kuwait, 9,000 Soviet nationals worked in Iraq.

Saddam earlier this month said all foreigners, previously prevented from leaving Iraq and Kuwait, could go home.

Thousands of Western and Japanese men had been held hostage since shortly after Iraqi troops swept into Kuwait. Baghdad said they were guests, held to deter any attack by the U.S.-dominated multinational force assembled in the gulf.

In other developments:

A government newspaper in Baghdad quoted Mohammed Abbas, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Front, as saying special squads have been prepared to strike American targets worldwide if war breaks out in the Persian Gulf area.

Abbas, who is also known as Abul Abbas, is the leader of the Baghdad-based Palestinian group that hijacked the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985 and killed American passenger Leon Klinghoffer.

Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. forces in the gulf, warned Sunday that Iraq would put up a hard fight in an all-out war that could last six months. He said Iraqis were positioned for a tough, defensive land battle, and if it came to war, "I'm not going to hold anything back."

A military study said the United States had no conclusive evidence when it accused Iraq of using chemical weapons against its Kurdish minority in September 1988.

The report, written by three analysts at the U.S. Army War College before Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, also said that "contrary to general belief, Iraq's rulers enjoy significant popular support."

The study examined Iraq's performance in the Iran-Iraq war that ended in July 1988.

The Los Angeles Times reported that ground-war computer models and an Army assessment of American- and Soviet-made Iraqi equipment give the United States a decisive edge in weapon quality that would compensate for any numerical disadvantage. The newspaper said those conclusions support the Bush administration's prediction of an overwhelming victory should hostilities begin.

In Baghdad, Iraqi officials began to say Sunday they are wondering if Iraq was fooled into releasing all its foreign hostages on the false assumption that a reduction of the level of hostility was in the works. Iraq originally had announced it would begin freeing the hostages Christmas Day and complete the process by mid-March.

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