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PRAISE FOR IRAQ QUIETED\ SOVIET LEADERS PRESS FOR TALKS, CALL PEACE OFFER 'INSUFFICIENT'

PRAISE FOR IRAQ QUIETED\ SOVIET LEADERS PRESS FOR TALKS, CALL PEACE OFFER 'INSUFFICIENT'

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Soviet leaders backed off from initial praise of Iraq's peace proposal Saturday but pressed ahead with their own diplomatic efforts that include impending talks with Iraq's foreign minister.

President Mikhail Gorbachev at first greeted an Iraqi offer Friday to withdraw from Kuwait ``with satisfaction and hope.'But at an unusual Saturday briefing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Vitaly Churkin said that the Iraqi offer was insufficient to end the Persian Gulf war.

``Unfortunately, that basic provision is linked to a number of conditions likely to render it meaningless,' Churkin said.

But, he said, the fact that Iraq was showing a willingness to talk about a pullout was significant. ``We continue to hope that this statement is going to mark a starting point in movement toward peace,' he said.

``The Iraqi leadership is talking about the possibility of withdrawing,' Churkin said. ``We would like to pursue this line in discussions with them.'

Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh spoke by telephone Friday night with President Bush, a spokesman said. By Saturday, Soviet officials appeared to modify their praise of Iraq's offer to link a Kuwaiti pullout with other Middle East conflicts.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin's multi-faceted peace initiative continued as Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz was preparing to head to Moscow for a two-day visit that would include meetings Monday with Gorbachev and Bessmertnykh.

The trip was originally set for today, but Ghalib al-Timimi, a counselor at the Iraqi Embassy in Moscow, told The Associated Press that the trip could be delayed until Monday. He would give no other details about the timing, and would not say whether Aziz would carry any messages or proposals to Moscow.

U.S. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, interviewed on CNN's Newsmaker program Saturday, pinned little hope on the Moscow mission.

``If they can persuade Saddam Hussein to comply with the U.N. resolutions and get out of Kuwait by reiterating once again that that's the only acceptable outcome, that, obviously, would be a service. But we don't believe that's any room here for any pause, any cease-fire, or anything other than complete, total, unconditional compliance with the U.N. resolutions,' he said.

President Bush told reporters in Kennebunkport, Maine, that the Soviet Union is playing a ``constructive role' in trying to end the Gulf War.

Administration officials Saturday said Gorbachev had asked the United States to hold off on launching a ground war against Iraq until the Aziz-Gorbachev talks were concluded.

In Saudi Arabia, U.S. Brig. Gen. Richard Neal said in response to a reporter's question that U.S. forces could not guarantee the safety of Aziz on his flight from Iraq to Moscow.

Soviet leaders have met with Iraqi, Iranian and Kuwaiti officials in Moscow, Tehran and Baghdad in recent days. They've also kept in close touch with U.S. officials.

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