Both sides could claim victory in the Persian Gulf crisis without firing a shot, says Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah.

But Owens also believes it is now up to Iraq's President Saddam Hussein to avert a military response from the multinational force arrayed along the Saudi Arabia-Kuwait border as the Jan. 15 midnight deadline for Iraq's withdrawal from occupied Kuwait ticks down.Owens said Saddam can claim victory by announcing that Iraq accepts the United Nation's offer of a world conference on Middle East issues and will now withdraw from Kuwait, which was invaded by Iraq on Aug. 2. A U.N. resolution endorsing such a conference was approved two weeks ago with United States backing. Owens said one of Saddam's announced purposes for the Kuwait invasion was to force a conference aimed at resolving the Palestinian homeland issue and that the U.N.-backed conference could lead to that stated goal.

Owens said President Bush could accept such an Iraqi announcement and still claim victory. Bush would be in a position to claim that no concessions were made to reward Iraq's aggression and that the United States had stood firm in its refusal to grant linkage between Iraq's pullout and any forthcoming world conference.

While Owens opposed Saturday's passage of a resolution granting Bush authority to use force in resolving the Persian Gulf crisis, he reaffirmed his pledge to close ranks with the president.

"I think over the past few days we have seen the finest display of the democratic process," Owens said of the congressional debate that led to passage of the support resolution. "I do not agree with the decision, but I now believe we must support the president and our troops."

While he will support whatever action is taken by the administration, Owens remains fearful there will be long-term negative consequences for the United States.

Owens said he believes no matter what the outcome of a war might be, it will spell disaster for the United States in the Middle East for years to come. He said conflict will serve only to heighten animosity between Arabs and Americans and spur continued Arab-Israeli hatred.

The congressman praised Bush's initial efforts at stopping Saddam's aggression. He said establishment of a defensive military presence in coalition with other countries and the imposition of economic and political sanctions was a proper and necessary response.

Owens also said the sanctions accomplished three of the four goals set forth in the initial effort. Only Iraq's continued occupation of Kuwait was left to resolve, and Owens believes continued use of sanctions could have accomplished that goal. The Nov. 8 decision to increase the U.S. military presence to an offensive force was a critical mistake, Owens said.

Owens said he remains hopeful that war can be averted but believes if Saddam fails to meet the midnight deadline, massive U.S. air strikes will follow within three to four days. He is also convinced that Saddam will be defeated, but he is not convinced it will be a quick and decisive victory. And the longer the conflict drags on, he said, the more bitter Arab resentment toward the United States will be when the war is over.