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Gorbachev’s final Kuwait peace bid in late-night meeting

One final attempt to strike a deal to avert the American-led ground offensive against Iraq over Kuwait was negotiated in Moscow.

In the days before the ground assault in February 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev, the then Soviet president, held a late-night meeting with Tariq Aziz, then Iraq’s foreign minister.

The Soviet transcript of the conversation is among secret documents that reveal how France helped the Soviet Union to stop America toppling Saddam Hussein as Iraq’s president in the first Gulf War.

Gorbachev is recorded as telling Aziz: “On the American side, it is now a matter of hours, not even days. I can report that, according to reliable intelligence from three sources, the ground offensive should have started already. It was only our appeal that delayed it.”

I can tell you right now that we do not trust Saddam

Francois Mitterrand speaking privately to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991

“The agreed plan should not contain clauses that could be regarded as pre-conditions. Otherwise, the Americans will immediately use it. We should trust each other that we shall mutually respect all the agreements reached. I think that France and China will support this.”

Aziz offered to withdraw troops from Kuwait in six weeks if the US and allies agreed to a ceasefire, to lift economic sanctions, and not to demand any reparations for the damage caused to Kuwait by the invasion. Gorbachev insisted that the time be cut by half, but Aziz would not agree to removing pre-conditions.

George Bush senior, the then US president, saw the proposal as simply an attempt to win time until mid-March, when a ground assault would be greatly complicated by tough weather conditions. He immediately gave Iraq 24 hours to agree to withdraw within seven days with no pre-conditions on sanctions or reparations.

The day after meeting Aziz, Gorbachev telephoned Francois Mitterrand, then French president, who was also sceptical about Iraq’s proposal. According to the transcript of their conversation, Mitterrand told Gorbachev: “Apparently, Iraq does not accept the proposals contained in the joint statement of the United States, France and other countries. As I understand it, the main disagreement is about the time limits.

“The 21-day period expires at the end of March, when the period of strong heat and sand-storms begins in that region. With Iraq not showing goodwill, we might find it difficult in such circumstances to fight a war. The ground attacks would have to be postponed for six months, which would create great difficulties for our soldiers.

“I can tell you right now that we do not trust Saddam… The question of timing is very important for us. We insist on the period of seven days. The term offered by Iraq is too long. After all March is coming soon with extremely unfavourable weather conditions.

“If it were December or January, it would be still acceptable. We have reason to believe that Saddam Hussein wants to buy time until the end of the period acceptable for us. This is a risk that we cannot take. Such is our position. Such is, if you will, my position.”

Gorbachev’s attempts to head off further military action seemed to fail. But Mitterrand told him that he saw the diplomatic effort as having had some success.

Pavel Stroilov is a Russian journalist and political exile living in London, and author of ‘Behind the Desert Storm’. 

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