Even after all the propaganda behind Iraq's claims of indiscriminate U.S. bombing have been discounted, Americans need to confront some unpalatable truths about the war in the Persian Gulf.

One is that it is impossible to avoid civilian casualties altogether, no matter how hard allied pilots may try to avoid civilian targets - and they have been extremely meticulous. Whole groups of aircraft have returned to home base without dropping their bombs whenever they cannot identify their military targets. But some legitimate targets like roads, bridges and power plants have military as well as civilian uses.Another unpalatable truth is that civilian casualties in Iraq seem bound to escalate sharply if, as allied officials suspect, Saddam Hussein puts more military targets closer to civilian buildings, like hospitals and apartments.

Still another such truth is that even if no more bombs were dropped and the allies never mounted a ground attack, the civilian toll would still keep mounting.

Why? Because of grave shortages of crucial medical supplies, including antibiotics, intravenous infusion sets and blood transfusion equipment. Because of shortages of food and water. And because of the cholera and typhoid epidemics that can be expected to break out when people are forced to drink stagnant water without first boiling it - due to the growing shortage of fuel.

What's needed now is an independent assessment of the extent of civilian casualties in Iraq, followed by an international effort to provide needed medical supplies and equipment.

That's precisely what the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a New York-based interfaith group, and a variety of American pacifist groups are seeking to do.

But, sadly, some Americans seem to view any expression of sympathy for Iraqis as a lack of patriotism and a threat to U.S. servicemen and -women serving in the Persian Gulf.

The critics should keep in mind that, despite its economic embargo and permission for the use of force against Iraq, the United Nations has not prohibited the shipment of medical supplies to Iraq. Keep in mind, too, that the allies' quarrel is with the outlaw government of Iraq, not with that country's citizens.

The most effective relief work in Iraq will, of course, have to wait until after the shooting stops. But let's do what can be done now to start healing the war's wounds.