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MOOD IS SOMBER AS BAKER, SOVIET ATTEMPT TO WRAP UP ARMS TALKS

The nine-year struggle to write a treaty to cut back on U.S. and Soviet long-range nuclear missiles is entering its final phase.

Only a handful of technical issues standin the way of a 30 percent reduction in the world's deadliest weapons. Those issues are so complicated that even some of the top Bush administration officials working on strategic arms admit they don't understand all the details.

"They are tough nuts to crack, very complex," one of Secretary of State James A. Baker III's closest advisers said Friday night on the flight home from Geneva.

There, Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander A. Bessmertnykh had spent nearly three hours on the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, only to emerge from the Soviet mission without an agreement.

Neither even claimed progress, which foreign ministers usually declare even when they are at each other's throats.

As a nasty drizzle fell on a cluster of officials and reporters, Bessmertnykh was asked whether his somber mood had to do with the weather or the tone of his talks with Baker.

"We are not less optimistic at all," the Soviet foreign minister replied. "I think we are in a more working mode. We are realists. We have just started the job. That's why we look so serious."

The task they had just started was the end game, the critical period near the end of a chess match or an arms control negotiation in which each move takes on an exaggerated importance.

On the face of it, the remaining issues are not considered terribly significant by arms control specialists. They include the degree of data to be exchanged from missile flight tests and whether some warheads can be taken off various missiles and placed on others.

Baker gave Bessmertnykh a letter from President Bush to deliver to Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

"This letter does, indeed, contain some new ideas," Baker said, without disclosing any of them.

Bessmertnykh promised to take the letter swiftly to Gorbachev and to provide a reply quickly.

That reply is likely to be delivered to Baker when he and Bessmertnykh meet next week at a conference in Berlin on European security.

In the meantime, the same Bush administration officials who were saying last week that the Moscow summit might be held in late June are spreading doubt Bush will see Gorbachev by early July.

"A fair amount of work has to be done before we will conclude a START agreement," Baker said.

As for a summit date, he said, "We didn't even discuss specific dates."

Gorbachev wants to see Bush as soon as possible to dramatize his need for Western economic assistance.

Bush and Baker planned to plot their next moves in the quiet of Camp David this weekend. Also on their agenda was the apparent deadlock in trying to set up Mideast peace talks.

On both fronts, Bush's foreign policy goals are in jeopardy - which is apt to become apparent after the glow of Saturday's capital celebration of the U.S. victory over Iraq dims.

In the end game period, the Bush administration may simply have calculated Gorbachev wants the summit so much that the best U.S. strategy is simply to wait for the Soviets to give in on the issues.

That was the U.S. strategy in wrapping up a treaty to cut non-nuclear weapons in Europe.

It took a half-year, but the Soviets finally yielded.