ASSORTED hints have come from Moscow that the Soviets are willing to supply intelligence about Iraq. This could be of critical importance.
Long and intimate involvement with the Iraqi military and police establishments, from the top well on down, gave Moscow information unavailable anywhere else.
It is a reflection of the astonishing, still quite incomplete shift in SoFloraLewisviet-U.S. relations that Washington has reacted coolly.
There are some valid reasons for caution.
For one thing, there has been an energetic KGB campaign for nearly a year now to prettify a deservedly ugly image at home and abroad.
"They want to convince us that not even the KGB is still our enemy, but they are still very busy in the U.S.," a retired CIA official said.
So it isn't clear whether the open hints are just part of a public relations campaign, or meant more seriously than such on-the-record statements might suggest.
Last week Vladimir Kryuchkov, the KGB's chairman, received an Associated Press delegation himself and said, "I am convinced that we could really tell each other (the CIA) something valuable."
Now, Gen. Mikhail Moiseyev, chief of the Soviet General Staff, tells American newsmen that he is giving details about Soviet-made weapons used by the Iraqis to the U.S. embassy, but admits that the CIA already knows most of it.
Neither he nor Kryuchkov indicated whether there were any terms for the proffered help, but they complained that Washington hasn't signaled much interest.
Washington's view is that there is still a long way to go before the U.S. is ready to exchange secrets, as it does with allies.
But it is ready to receive what is provided, though with some skepticism, through normal diplomatic contacts, preferably through America's Moscow Embassy rather than in leaky Washington.
A distinction needs to be made between military hardware and political operational intelligence.
The former isn't hard to get from observation and regional sources and its use is only in case of war.
But political intelligence could be decisive in preventing war, which requires real change in Baghdad.
Talk about "negotiating" with Saddam Hussein is an illusion. His threats to fight "to the last drop of [his people's] blood," that "this will be the mother of wars," that he will destroy the whole region show how much he cares about the fate of his country. If he spoke French, his motto would be Louis XV's "after me, the deluge."
Nor should the U.S. wish to devastate Iraq.
Its benighted people are victims, not the perpetrators of the crisis.
Apart from humane common sense, it would be geopolitical stupidity, similar to the mistake of indulging Saddam after the Iran-Iraq war.
The objective in the first place, to prevent any ambitious tyrant from controlling over half the world's oil, remains valid and there would be no improvement if Iran or Syria succeeded because Saddam is made to fall.
Outsiders cannot heal what ails the Arab states, but they can make sure they don't unwittingly create new monsters with lopsided support.
The consequences of war are incalculable, and every effort should be made to avoid it. One way is to back off, a victory Saddam would be sure to exploit.
A long, surprising article in the London newspaper the Independent last month, linked to the anniversary of World War II's Battle of Britain, showed where that reasoning leads.
Terry Coleman, the writer, went through the archives of British diplomacy from 1940 and condemns Winston Churchill for refusing to probe Hitler's secret peace offers.
He cites a message through the British embassy in Stockholm saying "The Fuehrer feels responsible for the future of the white race" and would be willing to settle for "two economic units -- continental Europe, which is Germany's, and the British Empire and America."
L That would have brought a hellish peace -- for a short time.
The other way to avoid war is to get rid of Saddam.
It is what the embargo is really about, and he knows it.
Talk of finding him an "escape hatch" or "saving face" because his current demands are limited is the kind of talk Coleman
cravenly thinks Churchill should have entertained in 1940.
This time the world has organized against aggression from the start, and its determination should inspire Iraqis to save themselves.
That is where the Soviets come in.
Saddam has foiled many coup attempts, with brutal aftermaths, but the incentive to try again is much greater now and growing.
Moscow knows a lot about who is who in the entourage, what might be possible. It has its own good reasons for wanting the crisis to end without a fight.
Washington should encourage the Soviets to pass along useful information, test what they are willing to provide, and assure that confidence will be respected.
There is too much to lose without giving it a try.
Saddam didn't give us time to get used to the idea of such cooperation, but it's vital.
Folra Lewis is a Paris-based columnist for the New York Times who writes regularly on foreign affairs.