The Times Washington staff

HEAVY CASUALTIES? The widening public split over Persian Gulf policy--including the debate in Congress over the weekend--may inadvertently cause American forces in Operation Desert Shield significantly more casualties than they might otherwise receive, some U.S. strategists say.

Intelligence analysts warn that, partly as a result of seeming U.S. wavering, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein may concentrate initially on killing or wounding large numbers of American troops instead of going for more strategic objectives such as knocking out airfields or tank emplacements. They say Hussein might reason that, with Congress and the American people divided, inflicting heavy casualties early on--even at the risk of big losses on the Iraqi side--could force the President to abandon the fighting, as ultimately happened with Vietnam.

The strategists say it is not clear how well the United States would be able to counter such attacks should Bush decide to do battle with Iraq. Air power is of limited use in such situations, and few of the U.S. troops--even among the Marines--are battle-tested. “It’s a real worry,” one senior strategist said.