Administration attempts to isolate Saddam Hussein and force him from power have delayed indefinitely and possibly scuttled a war crimes trial against the embattled Iraqi leader, administration officials and legal experts said.

These officials describe as soft President Bush's support for a drawn-out legal trial against Saddam, who almost certainly would have to be tried in absentia.While Bush has expressed some confidence that a prosecution could be successfully mounted against Saddam for acts of war against neighboring Kuwait and Iraqi civilians, the president urgently wants Saddam to be exiled.

Earlier in the week, Bush said, "Well, as far as pressing charges, we'd be willing to get (Saddam) out; we want him out of there so badly."

Secretary of State James Baker, who is touring the Middle East in search of support for a regional peace summit, said Wednesday evening that practical considerations, including violence against Kurdish and Shiite refugees, merit forcing Saddam into exile, not a courtroom.

He also suggested that a trial featuring an absent defendant would be unpopular, if not pointless.

"An absentia trial here is not a preference," said Bruce Fein, a lawyer who served in the Reagan administration. "It's instinctively in opposition to that aspiration to have a defendant on the witness stand."

The impetus for a war crimes tribunal against Iraq's leadership has until recently remained dormant, with world attention focused on the plight of Kurds.

In recent days, though, perhaps because of the refugee crisis, U.S. allies, the U.N. secretary-general and members of Congress have expressed interest in an international tribunal similar to those established after World War II.

U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar said a war crimes trial "deserves consideration."

His remark was prompted by a European Community request in which the member foreign ministers agreed to press for Saddam to stand trial for invading other countries, using chemical weapons against civilians and attempting to annihilate the Kurdish population.

On Thursday, the Senate passed legislation urging Bush to support an international tribunal.

Pentagon and State Department lawyers have been gathering information and passing it on to the Kuwaiti and Saudi governments.