A ruler who long ago held sway over the region now controlled by Iraq's Saddam Hussein once confronted a disturbing phenomenon described in the Bible - a hand writing these words on the wall:

"MENE, MENE, TEKEL and PARSIN."As interpreted by the prophet Daniel, the Aramaic words meant in part, "God has numbered the days of your kingdom . . . you have been weighed in balances and found wanting."

That ancient, banqueting king was Belshazzar, successor to Nebuchadnezzar, whose military might and grandeur had made Babylonia the dominant power of the Middle East, a legacy to which Saddam has likened his own role.

"Defender of the Arab nation," Nebuchadnezzar is described in Iraqi history books, a mantle Saddam also claims.

Nebuchadnezzar's Babylonian kingdom centered, as does Iraq, in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, cradle of civilization's beginnings. His surrounding military conquests had made him master of an empire.

By extolling that past grandeur, Saddam has sought to boost his own credentials for dominion.

Before the war, he had spent millions of dollars and used 1,000 laborers to rebuild the ancient capital of Babylon, whose ruins are 60 miles south of the modern capital of Baghdad.

For all of Babylon's splendor, its palaces, gardens, bridges, statues and temples to idols, its decorated processional avenue, immense gates and fortifications, it also became famed for its vice and corruption.

"Babylon the great, the mother of harlots, and of earth's abominations," says the visionary book of Revelation, likely also referring to the subsequent decadence of ancient Rome.

Nebuchadnezzar's older, expansionist empire, like modern Iraq's Saddam, also was a dire foe of Israel.

Instead of hurling missiles on Israel, however, Nebuchadnezzar's armies overran the Jewish kingdom, besieged Jerusalem, looted the city of its treasures, burned it and took much of its population into captivity.

"By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remember Zion," relates Psalm 137. "On the willows there we hung our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth."

That forced exile to Babylon came in two waves, in 598 and 587 B.C., the latter the most sweeping, the total numbers put variously at 4,600 and 10,000.

The prophet Isaiah recounts the captives' "pain and turmoil" under "unrelenting persecution." He says, "This is a people robbed and plundered, they are all of them trapped in holes, and hidden in prisons."

But he also had words of encouragement. For "they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint."

By their skills, some Jewish captives were assigned important tasks. Some gained influence in the royal court, notably Daniel, and also three called Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.

Although the book bearing Daniel's name apparently was not recorded until much later, it recounts several dramatic episodes with Nebuchadnezzar.

Although the massive exile lasted about 50 years, the prophets kept sounding a steady note both of distress and of hope.

"We have heard a cry of panic, of terror," wrote Jeremiah. But "fear not . . . says the Lord, nor be dismayed O Israel. I will save you from afar, and your offspring from the land of their captivity . . . "

Nebuchadnezzar recurrently was troubled by complicated dreams that his astrologers, enchanters and sorcerers could not fathom, but Daniel reportedly saw through them.

One dream was interpreted to mean Nebuchadnezzar would, in effect, go mad and become like an animal until he recognized the Most High God of Israel. That, indeed, happened to him. The biblical account says:

"He was driven from among men, and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles' feathers and his nails were like birds' claws."

But his reason returned, the account says. He recognized and praised God, and was restored to his royal court and rule. He reigned for 43 years, dying in 562 B.C., with Israel still in captivity.

But under successors, the Babylonian empire fell to the Persian king Cyrus, who in 538 B.C., issued his edict that Jews could return to Israel. They did, rebuilding the temple.