Deaths are seen inhibiting allies * Iraqi civilian toll could erode global support. PERSIAN GULF SHOWDOWN


WASHINGTON -- After weeks of trying to minimize American military casualties to preserve domestic backing for the Persian Gulf war, President Bush is confronting the prospect that civilian casualties in Iraq could threaten international support for the continuing bombing campaign.

Administration officials and Western diplomats said yesterday that a rising civilian toll, along with anti-American demonstrations in the Middle East and diplomatic overtures by the Soviet Union and other countries, could bring pressure to bear on Bush to advance the start of a ground offensive.

American officials said Bush was determined to make that decision on the basis of military, not political, considerations and that his allies were not pushing him to speed up the ground war. The administration also expressed confidence that American public opinion was solidly behind the war.

But White House aides acknowledged that President Saddam Hussein of Iraq had had more success than they anticipated in publicizing civilian casualties and that this raised concerns about public opinion abroad and about the potential for cracks in the anti-Baghdad coalition.

The public and private reactions of the administration as it sought to rebut the Iraqi charges and counter with accusations of its own provided dramatic evidence of the importance the White House attaches to the issue of civilian casualties.

The White House clearly was on the defensive yesterday in the early rounds of the battle for public opinion as Iraq asserted that American bombers killed hundreds of civilians in a non-military air-raid shelter in Baghdad.

The administration's across-the-board effort began yesterday morning at the White House, with a hasty and rough-edged attempt to pre-empt the images of dead and wounded civilians that began flooding American television screens.

Breaking with his usual practice of giving his news briefings off camera, Marlin Fitzwater, the president's spokesman, appeared on national television with only a few minutes' notice to read a statement insisting that the destroyed bunker was a military installation and blaming Saddam for the deaths.

"Saddam Hussein created this war," said Fitzwater.

Fitzwater led a string of other officials in citing actions by Baghdad that they said indicated its disregard for human life, including the oil spill in the Persian Gulf, the use of foreign hostages as shields against attack last year and the reported brutality of Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait.

Fitzwater and other officials implied that Saddam deliberately sacrificed his own people and Iraqi historical sites to allied bombing as a propaganda tool.

While the bombing raid in Baghdad thrust the issue of civilian casualties into the forefront of world attention, the problem has been simmering in Bush's war councils for some time.

To avoid alienating Arab public opinion, and thus endangering the alliance he so painstakingly built, the president has said all along that he was ordering the military to avoid civilian casualties as much as possible. But that pledge conflicts with another, this one to a domestic audience, to keep American military casualties to a minimum.

The problem has been particularly acute in Bush's consideration of when to begin a ground offensive. On the advice of his senior military aides, the president is giving allied bombers more time to destroy Iraqi targets and thus cut American deaths when the ground war begins.

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