The emir of Kuwait returned to his country Thursday for the first time since Iraq invaded Aug. 2, ending another chapter in the oil-rich emirate's long road to recovery. Meanwhile, President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker took their missions for peace into new territory.

Baker met for six hours Wednesday with Syrian President Hafez Assad in an effort to forge a new Middle East agreement among allies in the Persian Gulf war. He arrived in Moscow Thursday to meet with Soviet leaders.Bush, in his effort to carry forth into peace the same coalition closeness in the war against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, traveled to the Caribbean for consultations with French President Francois Mitterrand.

Reports continue to emerge of violence in postwar Iraq, with violence particularly heavy in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq.

Saying "Praise be to God," the emir of Kuwait returned Thursday to his war-torn nation 19 days after U.S.-led allied forces liberated it from an Iraqi reign of terror.

Emir Jaber Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah knelt on the ground and prayed, touching his head to the tarmac moments after his Kuwait Airways 727 touched down about 4:50 p.m.

With his arrival, the top leadership of Kuwait was in place ready to tackle the massive problems of returning the country to normality. The emir had been in neighboring Saudi Arabia since the invasion.

Kuwait residents, who hung pictures of the emir from their cars and homes, welcomed their leader back but were still struggling through such hardships as a lack of water and electricity.

Kuwaitis want political reform

The emir also faced rising demands for more political reform.

"Everyone is delighted that the emir is returning but we want change," said Mohammed Al-Qadiri, 41, a former Kuwaiti ambassador turned democracy activist. "The new Kuwait should be built on democracy."

Baker arrived in Moscow trying to cement superpower cooperation for a Middle East settlement and deal with troublesome questions on arms control. The Soviet Union hoped to turn its support of the international coalition against Iraq into more influence in a postwar settlement.

Soviet presidential spokesman Vitaly Ignatenko said Baker has "put forward some ideas. We in Moscow also have certain ideas . . . we will have a useful meeting and we could inform the world about some plans for the postwar settlement."

U.S. gauges Assad's intentions

Baker's meeting in Syria allowed him to gauge the uncertain intentions of Assad, erstwhile enemy and unlikely U.S. ally in the war. The talks loomed as an important test of whether Arab attitudes have changed with the defeat of Saddam.

Baker hoped to build on the bettering relations brought on by the joint fight against Saddam and may have sought Syria's help in freeing the U.S. hostages held in the Middle East since before the war. Details of the talks were not disclosed.

Bush headed off for Martinique in the French West Indies for his second meeting with a Western head of state. He discussed postwar development with Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney Wednesday and will meet with British Prime Minister John Major this weekend.

Bush seeks peacekeeping role

Bush's hope was to channel the coalition closeness in war into a peacekeeping role in the region.

"It is my view that we ought to move foward," Bush told reporters in Canada Wednesday. "I think the United States is in as good a position, if not a better position than it has ever been in, to be a catalyst for peace there."

Bush also indicated Iraq's use of military helicopters to thwart internal unrest could threaten to delay formal postwar security arrangements.

"That's one that has got to be resolved before we're going to have any permanence to any cease-fire," said Bush, who said the aircraft were used for combat purposes.

Iraqi unrest continues

Reports of heavy fighting around the northern Iraqi oil town of Kirkuk reached the West Thursday. The official Islamic Republic News Agency said troops loyal to Saddam set fire to two oil wells near Kirkuk during heavy fighting with Kurdish rebels.

Quoting a spokesman of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, an Iraqi Kurdish rebel group, IRNA said the battle about 200 miles north of Baghdad had been going on since Tuesday when Kurdish Peshmergas, or rebel guerrillas, were reportedly within 7 miles of the city limits.

In south Iraq, many people were killed when heavy clashes continued between Saddam's forces and Shiite fundamentalists in the port city of Basra and at least five other cities, IRNA said.

Quoting Iraqi refugees who fled to Iran, IRNA said the rebels in the south seized a large number of tanks from government troops, but that Saddam's elite forces continued shelling homes, causing a large number of casualties.

The State Department Wednesday said it had reports of a wide range of fighting across Iraq, including the first confirmed reports of unrest in parts of Baghdad.

Saddam's foes want him out

In Beirut, Lebanon, opponents of Saddam Hussein pledged to pursue his ouster and formed an alternative government to prepare to assume power if he falls.

A statement issued Wednesday by 17 Kurdish and Sunni and Shiite Muslim groups banned in their homeland also called on loyalists in the Iraqi armed forces to join them in fighting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

"The conference has defined the direct mission that should be carried out by our people to topple Saddam Hussein's dictatorial rule and form a temporary coalition government that would liquidate the repercussions of dictatorship," said the statement read by Abu Rajaa Al Safi of the Iraqi Communist Party.

"We appeal to our armed forces to join the ranks of the rebels and refrain from staying a puppet exploited by the ruler as he wishes."

Participants stood up, clapping and joining raised hands in a show of solidarity, chanting "Saddam get your hands off (Iraq), all the people do not want you."

But the atmosphere of jubilation was marred when a group of tribesmen walked out to protest the conferees' failure to mention them in the final communique.