WASHINGTON -- The White House acknowledged yesterday that it had failed to convince the world, including the Soviet Union, that the United States and its allies were trying to keep civilian casualties to a minimum in the Persian Gulf war.
Spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, citing Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's warning Saturday that the United States risked going beyond the United Nations mandate, said that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein apparently was having an effect in accusing the United States of causing excessive civilian casualties.
"It does strike me that one of the unfortunate sides of the Soviet president's comments are that Saddam Hussein must be having some impact in terms of trying to convince the world" that the allies are aiming at civilian targets, Mr. Fitzwater said.
"He [the Iraqi president] has had a very extensive PR effort, and it's disturbing to find this evidence that somebody is buying it."
Iraq contended yesterday that civilian casualties numbered in the thousands. Ramsey Clark, former U.S. attorney general and peace activist who just returned from Iraq, said the head of the Iraqi Red Crescent -- the Muslim equivalent of the Red Cross -- had estimated that between 6,000 and 7,000 civilians had died so far in allied bombing.
Western reporters who recently have returned from Iraq report that Baghdad has sought to focus press attention on civilian damage, barring efforts to show the extent of damage to military targets.
Mr. Fitzwater said the allies have no way of getting hard information to rebut Iraq's claims.
"There obviously is collateral damage," Mr. Fitzwater said, using the official euphemism for civilian deaths and property losses. "We hope that it's not very much. We don't think it is, because of the evidence about the effectiveness of the targeted bombing and so forth. But in something like casualties, we just don't have any way of knowing."
The allies have sought to destroy Iraq's command-and-control apparatus, communications, runways, hidden aircraft, launchers for Scud missiles, supplies and supply routes with attacks across the country.
But reports of civilian casualties and mounting damage to Iraq's infrastructure have further inflamed opposition within the Arab world, particularly in Jordan, to the war against Iraq, putting the United States on the defensive politically.
While countering Mr. Gorbachev's fears about how the war is proceeding, U.S. officials expressed no opposition to his sending adviser Yevgeny Primakov to Iraq in hopes of achieving a peace settlement.
But Iraq appears to have rebuffed Iran's effort to mediate the crisis. Iraqi Deputy Premier Saadoun Hammadi repeated yesterday that his country was ready to negotiate an end to the gulf crisis, but he said that the United States must not take part in any talks and that discussions would have to occur in an "Arab framework."
Mr. Fitzwater's complaints came just prior to President Bush's meeting at the White House yesterday with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens, who spent much of the session describing destruction in Israel caused by Iraqi Scud missiles, White House officials said.
"It was really dramatic that, during our meeting, I received a notice that there was an alarm in Israel at that very moment, and we evidently had a Scud hit in Israel that took place only a few minutes ago," Mr. Arens said.
Beforehand, Mr. Fitzwater had said, "I don't think we anticipate any change of policy" by Israel. A White House official said later that President Bush again praised Israeli "restraint."
Israeli officials have made it known that they would strike back in the event of a chemical attack or one that caused heavy civilian casualties, and they have vowed to retaliate at a time of their choosing. They also are anxious that their current restraint not be forgotten after the war, when the United States is likely to come under renewed pressure to broker a settlement of the Palestinian conflict.
While Mr. Arens met in Washington with President Bush, Israel's foreign minister, David Levy, said in Jerusalem that Israel must move promptly on the peace process or it would find a solution to the Palestinian problem imposed by the United States and its Arab allies.
"Israel has to lead in decisions that have to be adopted after the war and should not wait until the war is over and certain moves are coordinated without us," he said.
The comments by Mr. Levy, who was to leave Israel today for meetings in the United States, were particularly noteworthy because of his solid conservative credentials.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III expressed hope last week that Syria might cooperate in the peace process, but State Department officials denied he had put forward to Syria or Israel any proposal about an agreement on the Golan Heights.
Meanwhile, the State Department reported yesterday that there had been about 100 terrorist attacks against interests of the anti-Iraq coalition since the war broke out.