War or peace? "I see war," said Egyptian political commentator Hamdi Kandil, ominously, on CNN. "I smell war."

Smelling war may be beyond the technological capacities of television, but in the days since Iraq invaded Kuwait, there hasn't been much seeing, either. Mostly, the networks have trotted out the usual suspects -- experts, consultants and their own correspondents -- for repetitious interviews punctuated with routine file footage and maps, maps, maps.

It's been a mappy kind of a war.

That was until Ted Koppel of ABC News scored the most tremendous coup of the coverage so far, becoming the first U.S. correspondent to report from Iraq during the crisis -- although, on Tuesday's "World News Tonight" and "Nightline," Koppel was only heard by telephone, not seen.

Yesterday, ABC got access to a satellite up-link and aired Koppel's interview with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz. Excerpts ran on "World News Tonight" and the whole 45-minute discussion was scheduled to air later on "Nightline." Viewers saw nothing of the country itself -- just Koppel and Aziz against a black background in a TV studio.

By contrast, however, competitors have been getting zilch out of Iraq. Dan Rather of CBS News has been hanging around the Mideast for a week -- and does deserve credit for being the first American anchor in the region -- but he didn't get into Baghdad until yesterday.

"We are working on getting someone into Baghdad," CNN spokeswoman Lisa Dallos said yesterday. "We fully expect to be on a plane Thursday morning." Correspondents Doug James and Jim Clancy were awaiting visas. Anchor Bernard Shaw remains in Washington.

And the hopes of NBC News were at least temporarily dashed yesterday when visas promised to correspondent Garrick Utley and a crew of nine failed to materialize, despite a 2 a.m. call to NBC News President Michael Gartner from the Iraqi Embassy in Amman, Jordan, assuring him the visas would come through.

"We assumed we would have 10 visas this morning, but they were not made available to us after all," said Peggy Hubble of NBC News yesterday. "We're hoping to get them tomorrow {Thursday} and see what the situation is then. It seems like a bit of a lottery to some extent."

Competitors praised the tenacity and savvy of Koppel and ABC News in being first with the most from the front. But how much of the competitive edge depended on largess from Iraq, at least nominally The Enemy and without question the aggressor?

"We've gotten very little help from them, other than the fact that they let us in," said ABC News President Roone Arledge from New York yesterday. "The Iraqis did not really do anything except to accede to the endless requests that we be allowed in there."

Arledge and other ABC sources said Koppel and crew were not picked up and transported into Iraq by the Iraqi government. They paid for tickets on a commercial flight from Amman to Baghdad. This was after the Iraqis suggested that the Koppel party enter the country by bus.

"I said no to that," said Arledge. "I was worried about their safety. A bus through the desert in the middle of the night in Iraq was too risky a proposition."

So far, the Iraqis have been cooperative with Koppel, although Koppel made it clear on Tuesday's "Nightline" that he had not been granted unlimited access to roam and shoot where he pleased. Yesterday he managed to get into the luxurious Al-Rashid Hotel where 36 Americans -- "detainees" or "restrictees" as they are being called -- are stranded. After a few interviews, Koppel was told to vamoose.

"They made him leave, but they were very polite," Arledge said. Koppel had no video of the visit; instead he related his impressions to Peter Jennings on "World News Tonight." Koppel said an Iraqi "monitor" was present while he talked with the detained Americans.

Arledge was asked why Iraq said yes to Koppel and ABC before anybody else. Rigorous legwork was largely responsible, Arledge said. He also thinks King Hussein of Jordan, whom Koppel talked to in Amman, put in a favorable word when Hussein visited Baghdad before coming to the United States.

In addition, said Arledge of the Iraqis, "they've always felt that 'Nightline' was a fair program to the Arab point of view."

Is it possible ABC News is being "used" by the Iraqi government? "Yeah. Maybe. I don't know," one ABC spokesman said yesterday.

Koppel himself wrestled with the issue on Tuesday's "Nightline."

"The Iraqi government sees things going very poorly at the moment and not at all their way," Koppel said, by way of explaining why he was allowed into the country. "And they also feel, I guess, that they have nothing to lose by letting us come over here and report from over here, because the reporting has all been so anti-Iraq that I guess they feel they can't make it much worse.

"And who knows -- some of their point of view might get across."

In its Tuesday coverage, ABC seemed to be relying excessively on the reactions of one American businessman -- identified first on "World News Tonight" as Bob Vint and then a moment later as Bob Vinton -- who sounded pleased as punch with conditions in Baghdad. "We have complete freedom here," he told Jennings. He spoke of being "treated very well" and of being "absolutely not restricted at all."

Arledge, among others, was not pleased with the interview. "Ted said he wanted to use Vinton again on 'Nightline,' and I said, 'Well, the guy didn't say anything.' But Ted talked to him and he was much better on 'Nightline.' " The problem with the "World News" appearance, Arledge said, was that "it was one of those live situations. Peter didn't really know who the guy was."

Vinton is an executive with Johnson Controls Inc. of Milwaukee. Was he truly representative of Americans trapped in Iraq, or was he gently shoved by the Iraqis into the waiting arms of ABC News? Arledge said Koppel ran into Vinton at the American Embassy (the site of his phone calls on Tuesday's news programs) and that the Iraqis had nothing to do with it.

If competitors were grumbling about Koppel's coup yesterday, they were grumbling quietly into their coffee. Tom Goodman, CBS News spokesman, said CBS was not overwrought with jealousy. "No, not at all," Goodman said. "We're not embarrassed. We tip our microphone to them."

CNN, also locked out of Iraq, could take some consolation in the fact that Koppel mentioned the network on the air Tuesday night. He said Iraqi government officials are "gleaning what they can of U.S. intentions by watching CNN via satellite." It was another confirmation of CNN's estimable global presence, and perhaps of Washington's failure to communicate.

Koppel said once in an interview that in Europe and Asia, CNN anchor Bernie Shaw is much more famous than he is.

Tuesday's coverage included, on all four networks, a live press conference from the White House by President Bush, breezing in briefly from his Kennebunkport, Maine, vacation spot. The world waited breathlessly for word from Bush of America's next move in the Mideast. But Bush, master of the daffily inappropriate, instead spent the first eight minutes of the press conference ranting about the budget and angrily berating Democrats in Congress.

"A mildly political statement there from the president," Jennings said in astonishing understatement. But then, what can you expect from a man who, at the end of Tuesday's newscast, pronounced the word "feline" as "fay-leen"?

If ABC hadn't landed Koppel in Baghdad, CBS would have retained ownership of the story. Rather was Danny-on-the-Spot for a while, broadcasting not only from Amman but also from the deck of the USS Independence. He gave viewers a sense of place that no file footage or maps can equal.

But Koppel's amazing feat of journalistic diplomacy -- or diplomatic journalism -- overshadowed any inroads made by competitors. How long will he stay in Baghdad? Will he be leaving if, or when, bombs start bursting in air?

"There's always a danger," Arledge said of Koppel's daring expedition. "I don't think Ted is going to stay there much longer."