Exactly five months after Iraq seized Kuwait and two weeks away from possible war, diplomatic efforts toward ending the crisis are afoot, but embassy staffs in Baghdad are being trimmed down in case mediation fails.

Also Wednesday, a task force of 13 U.S. warships, including 7,500 Marines and landing craft, began heading for the Persian Gulf from the Philippines, where they stopped over en route from their base in San Diego.The troops are among the 430,000 President Bush wants assembled in the gulf region by Jan. 15, the U.N.-sanctioned deadline for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to pull his forces from Kuwait or face the possibility of attack.

Many Western embassies in Baghdad were not taking any chances on an Iraqi withdrawal. Diplomatic sources in the Iraqi capital said Tuesday that the United States and many other Western countries would pull out all but a handful of envoys in the next few days.

Five British diplomats and their dependents left on Tuesday, British Ambassador Harold Walker said.

In another sign of Iraq's determination to hold on to Kuwait, Baghdad media on Tuesday showed Saddam cooking dinner with his troops and praying for victory. It said the gatherings took place in Kuwait.

The foreign ministers of Egypt, Syria and Libya held talks in a Cairo hotel Wednesday, then adjourned to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak without commenting on what had been discussed. (Story on A6.)

A peace initiative is being considered by the European Community, whose 12 member nations meet in emergency session Friday.

Jacques Poos, foreign minister of Luxembourg, which assumed the rotating EC presidency with the new year, said Monday that he expects some member states to push for a meeting between him and his Iraqi counterpart, Tariq Aziz, in a last-ditch attempt to stave off armed conflict.

Washington and Baghdad have failed to agree on dates for talks before Jan. 15 toward ending the crisis, which began with Iraq's Aug. 2 seizure of Kuwait.

Vice President Dan Quayle wrapped up a visit to the gulf and headed back to Washington Tuesday night after calling on the deposed emir of Kuwait, Sheik Jaber al-Sabah, in the Saudi Arabian city of Taif.

Quayle told him, as he had informed Saudi King Fahd on Sunday, that more money is needed from U.S. allies to help support Washington's military effort in the gulf, Bush administration officials said.

The officials added that the emir had no objections to Quayle's request for greater financial backing, but there was no immediate elaboration.

The Kuwaiti government-in-exile has given $2.5 billion to the U.S. military effort plus $3.3 billion to poorer countries hard hit by the international embargo on trade with Iraq.

Saudi Arabia has given $9 billion in cash and in-kind support for U.S. forces plus $3.9 billion to nations hurt by the embargo. The 1991 cost of the U.S. operation has been estimated at $30 billion - if war is not waged.

Bush returned to Washington from a holiday stay at Camp David and discussed the gulf crisis at the White House with top advisers Tuesday.

Marlin Fitzwater said those attending were Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, White House chief of staff John Sununu, national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and Secretary of State James A. Baker III.

Administration officials have said Baker will probably visit U.S. allies in the gulf region before the Jan. 15 deadline. Asked about such a visit as he alighted from his helicopter at the White House, Bush declined to answer.

In other developments:

- A U.S. soldier of the 101st Airborne Division died after apparently shooting himself with his M-16 rifle, the U.S. Central Command reported Tuesday. He was the sixth serviceman to die since Saturday.

Second Lt. Shannon Patrick Kelly, 23, of Gulf Breeze, Fla., was found dead Monday, shot in the head, said Bill Harralson, public information officer at the division's headquarters in Fort Campbell, Ky. The death appeared to be a suicide, but officials were still investigating.

- Iran said Tuesday its forces will launch monthlong maneuvers in western provinces in mid-January, coinciding with the U.N. deadline. A spokesman for the armed forces said the aim of the exercises was to prepare for "defending the interests of the Islamic Republic in case the belligerent forces intend to use Iranian territory for inflicting blows on each other."