A formal truce ending the Persian Gulf war has gone into effect, although suffering and dying Kurds in the north might not agree. In any case, allied forces will begin to withdraw from occupied Iraqi territory as a small United Nations peacekeeping force takes up positions in a buffer zone stretching along the 120-mile Iraq-Kuwait border.

But as the pullout begins, some people are asking: What happened to earlier suggestions by President Bush and others regarding war crimes by Iraqis? Has that become a conveniently forgotten issue?Certainly, a case could be made for prosecution of war crimes, all the way up to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein himself. A panel of former Nuremberg prosecutors met in Washington last month and agreed that Saddam had committed war crimes and should face an international tribunal.

But there seems little that anyone can do at the moment while Saddam and other higher-ups are out of reach in Baghdad, although they might be tried in absentia. However, that would be more of a gesture than anything practical.

The U.S. government is still collecting information about atrocities against civilians and prisoners of war, yet it does not show any zeal toward taking action. It would prefer that other countries - preferably Arab - take the first step.

That's understandable. The United States does not want to be seen by Middle East nations as trying to prosecute Arabs, even those as reprehensible as Saddam. "Prosecute" would tend be seen as "persecute" in some Arab eyes, especially since the Iraqi military was so thoroughly humiliated by the American-led coalition.

A certain rough justice - along with plenty of injustice - has already been meted out in Kuwait against Iraqis and Palestinians suspected of crimes or collaboration. More than 600 Iraqi or Palestinian prisoners are still being held in Kuwait City facing possible charges. But most of the high-ranking Iraqi officials fled the city ahead of the allied advance. Those cases should be dealt with on the basis of solid evidence, not merely vengeance.

Saddam might justifiably be charged with war crimes under the U.N. treaty on genocide for what is happening to the Kurdish people in Iraq, but that seems unlikely at the moment, especially since a U.N.-approved truce has just taken effect.

After Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Bush often compared Saddam with Hitler - and there are certain similarities. Hitler, though, did not survive his misdeeds, but the "butcher of Baghdad" remains in power. And Iraq, sadly, remains a place where the words "war crimes" appear to reflect an everyday reality.