A number of U.S. officials are giving credence to an intelligence report that Iran's spiritual leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, is suffering from liver cancer and is not expected to live beyond the end of this year.

The report on Khomeini's health, said by sources to have emanated from the Central Intelligence Agency, has circulated among senior U.S. officials, and its existence was first reported by CBS News earlier this month. Although the CBS report, and subsequent media reports in Britain that Khomeini is dead, have been denied by Iran, the focus on Khomeini's health persists, as do references to the CIA report.One official briefed on the report said it is regarded as credible because it is based on access to medical opinions and the prognosis of the physicians treating Khomeini. The report indicates that Khomeini already has lost some or all of his eyesight due to the effects of the cancer, the official said.

"We're taking it seriously," said one U.S. official in the Middle East. "We think he will be dead by December."

Reports of Khomeini's demise or the deterioration of his health have surfaced regularly since the 85-year-old religious figure inspired the overthrow of Shah Reza Pahlavi nearly a decade ago. In each instance, Khomeini eventually has reappeared, lecturing students or government officials on the challenges facing the Islamic-based regime in Tehran or the evils of the West.

(n Washington, U.S. officials confirmed Friday that the CIA has received what it regards as highly reliable reports that Khomeini has terminal cancer, and said they are being taken seriously, Washington Post staff writer David B. Ottaway reported.

(he agency is reported to have learned from Western European medical sources that Khomeini has cancer of the prostate. There is still some dispute whether it was detected in time to prevent its spread to other organs, like the liver. But the CIA believes the cancer has entered his liver and possibly other organs as well, the officials said.)

Iranian officials have denied that Khomeini is dying. On June 18, Tehran radio announced that he had received visitors, including members of the Revolutionary Guards, at the Jamaran mosque in north Tehran. The radio said that the group came "to pray in your presence that God will accept our wish" that Khomeini would live until Judgment Day.

Iran's news agency said that Khomeini responded to the cheers from the well-wishers, but gave no other details.

Many Iran-watchers believe Khomeini's death this year would prompt a major crisis among the country's political leaders. The leadership has been buffeted already this year by large-scale military reversals in the war with Iraq, a devastating naval engagement with the United States near the Strait of Hormuz, continuing strains on the economy and tense parliamentary elections.

During his tenure as Iran's all-powerful revolutionary leader, Khomeini has made prosecution of the war with Iraq the single greatest focus of the revolutionary zeal that earlier sent millions of Iranians into the streets to demonstrate against the shah's rule in the late 1970s.

The war, which will enter its ninth year in September, has left more than 1 million casualties on the Iranian side, where volunteers with little training have charged Iraqi guns as "martyrs" of Shiia Islam, the dominant Moslem branch in Iran.

Continuation of the war until Iraq is punished as the "aggressor" has been the first test of loyalty in the revolutionary elite that rules the country in a complex web of alliances formed around domestic, religious and economic issues.