Populist Russian leader Boris Yeltsin came under fierce attack by conservatives in parliament and in the official media Monday after his call for a political "war" against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

The Communist Party newspaper Pravda suggested the liberal Russian Federation president was a phony democrat. Some members of parliament demanded a criminal investigation be launched against him for the speech in which he issued the call.But there were signs that the shrill attacks against Yeltsin, who is enormously popular among ordinary Russians, would only weaken his opponents - repeating a pattern that has characterized his transition from a Communist insider to a powerful rival of the party.

"You know that every one of our actions against Yeltsin increases his (popularity) rating," Nikolai Engver, a centrist economist from the Urals, told the Supreme Soviet during a debate on Yeltsin's Saturday speech.

Young Communist League deputy Sergei Tsyplyaev warned his colleagues: "Any resolution aimed against Yeltsin will cause another storm of meetings, protests and, God forbid, strikes."

Their caution and the overwhelming defeat of a proposed condemnation of Yeltsin testified to his enormous backing from ordinary workers, peasants and middle managers and his shrewd intuition on how best to play on that support.Yeltsin cemented that relationship Monday with striking coal miners, who pledged their full support and readiness to defend him "with all available non-violent methods."

Big crowds of Yeltsin supporters poured on to the streets of Soviet cities Sunday.

In central Moscow some 200,000 people chanted "Gorbachev, get out" and denounced next week's referendum on the country's future.

It was one of the biggest protests since Gorbachev launched his perestroika reforms in 1985, and it raised the stakes in months of political dueling with Yeltsin who heads the country's biggest republic.

The demonstrations showed clearly that critics on both the left and right had again underestimated Yeltsin when they dismissed his demand for Gorbachev's resignation last month as political suicide.

In his address Saturday to democratic activists at the Moscow House of Cinema, Yeltsin said: "Let's declare war on the leadership of the country, which has led us into a quagmire."

Pravda, in a commentary headlined "Democracy with an Iron Hand," dismissed Yeltsin and his supporters as those "who call themselves democrats."

Central television, under tight control by a Gorbachev loyalist, devoted 15 minutes Sunday evening to vicious attacks on Yeltsin, including lengthy interviews with ultra-hardliners.

"Today we stand before a choice. Shall we preserve our fatherland or blow it up and shatter it into tiny pieces?" said television analyst Alexander Artsibashev.