Will the real Saddam Hussein please stand up?

Is it the Saddam Hussein who snarled continued defiance at the world Thursday in a radio broadcast from Baghdad?Or is it the Saddam Hussein who a few hours later abruptly embraced a Soviet plan for persuading Iraqi invaders to leave Kuwait?

Was the Baghdad broadcast designed only for domestic consumption, a public effort to keep the support of the people of Iraq while Saddam privately sues for peace in a belated effort to save as much face and power as he can?

Or was Saddam's sudden acceptance of the Soviet plan simply an attempt to placate his former friends in the Kremlin while playing for the time needed to regroup his shattered military so it can fight on?

Only Saddam himself knows for sure, of course.

Meanwhile, as long as Saddam keeps sending mixed signals, the prudent course for the allies arrayed against Iraq is to pay more attention to what Saddam does than to what he says. Sadly, what he is doing is to continue firing missiles and to start a scorched earth policy that could leave Kuwait an international basket case for years and possibly decades to come.

Consequently, President Bush and the allies are right in spurning the Soviet plan and demanding that Iraq leave Kuwait immediately.

Besides, the Soviet plan fell short in a number of ways. It contained no clear deadline for the withdrawal of Iraqi troops. It also called for the cancellation of the 12 United Nations resolutions on Iraq once a cease-fire took hold, including resolutions that demand reparations for war damage. And it would have required the lifting of economic sanctions against Iraq once two-thirds of Saddam's forces had left Kuwait.

Still, the proposal is not without its allure. Its most tempting feature is the prospect of avoiding a land war in which American casualties would be bound to escalate sharply. Casualty estimates vary widely - from 3,000 American dead and wounded in a short, sharp war with little resistance to 45,000 casualties for a drawn-out conflict.

Even a short conflict could involve new terrors. Just as Saddam already has made good on previous threats to torch oil fields and launch missiles into Israel, he could be expected to make good on his threat to use chemical weapons in any ground campaign.

Never mind that the use of chemical weapons would make the world forget its outrage at civilian casualties so far in Iraq and forfeit what little goodwill Iraq retains. Never mind that Iraq will have to rely on the goodwill of the West and its friends for economic survival after the war. Only the West and Japan have the funds that could be used to rebuild the Iraqi industry and oil installations smashed by relentless allied bombing. Saudi Arabia and Turkey control the pipelines needed to carry whatever oil Iraq can export after the war. But if any of this really mattered to Saddam, he would have left Kuwait long ago or never invaded.

If the war in the Persian Gulf is to be ended without much more bloodshed, it's abundantly clear what is needed - beyond an immediate and unconditional Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.

The basic requirement is firm assurance that Saddam will never again be able to do what he did to Kuwait. To some extent, this already has been accomplished by the virtual destruction of Iraq's ability to produce nuclear and chemical weapons. Likewise, this objective could be furthered by requiring Iraqi forces to leave their tanks and artillery behind when withdrawing from Kuwait.

The trouble is that such facilities and weapons can be quickly rebuilt or purchased, particularly the means of waging chemical or biological warfare. Hence Washington's understandable desire for a new government in Iraq, a government that does not include Saddam.

Moreover, it's hard to feel entirely good about the Soviet Union's role in all this. Anyone who seriously thinks it was idealism that prompted the Soviet peace plan needs a quick course in international politics. Instead, it's easier to explain that plan as a Soviet attempt to divert attention from the USSR's own internal problems, shore up its own sagging prestige and gain greater leverage in the Persian Gulf.

Meanwhile, despite its rejection by the allies, the Soviet initiative at least represents a potential first step to the diplomatic maneuvering that must precede any negotiated settlement to the war in the gulf. As that maneuvering continues, the West and its Arab allies must make sure they do not end up by merely trading in one set of problems for some brand new ones.