Though Iraq has lost the air war in the Persian Gulf, there is one theater where it remains indisputably the master: the verbal artillery war of imagery and metaphor.

Not since the heyday of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini reviling the United States as the "Great Satan" have official governmental statements rung with such poetic invective.

George Bush is "the evil butcher," allied warplanes "the ravens of savagery," Israelis "criminal Zionist spiders." Even Baghdad Radio has redesignated itself "Mother of Battles Radio."

The coming ground war, Mother of Battles Radio proclaimed Feb. 2, "will herald the first leap in this army's holy march toward the liberation of the lands of heavenly messages. ... Then the Americans will be taught a lesson in manliness and real combat and certificates of this lesson will be their blood, shed in rivers in which they will swim as floating corpses."

"Leave the land of Najd and Hijaz," Iraq's voice warned the allies Jan. 31, "before your armies become food for birds of prey and corpses blown up by the desert wind." Just two days before, hyperbole and bureaucratese had achieved a notable marriage in Communique 26, issued by the Iraqi Armed Forces General Command, which purported to describe events that happened "while our heroic missile forces pounded the dens of the enemy and the dens of treason, shame, debauchery and infidelity, as mentioned in our previous communique... ."

If all this sounds to Western ears like the foam-flecked ravings of unhinged fanatics, Middle East specialists caution that cultural tunnel vision keeps too many Americans from understanding Iraqi rhetoric that may be quite carefully phrased, targeted to appeal to specific Arab groups and achieve specific purposes.

In the first place, says Mary Jane Deeb, a Lebanese-born assistant professor of government at American University, "the flamboyant phrasing is rather typical of the Arabic language ... which is very rich in imagery.

" 'Mother of battles,' for example, is merely a literal English translation of the Arabic term for 'supreme or ultimate battle,' " she says. "That is really the best way to say that in Arabic."

Even such a simple phrase as "thank you" is rendered in Arabic as "may Allah increase your well-being."

In addition, most Arabs, particularly those who live in the desert in traditional ways, she says, "speak naturally in metaphors drawn from nature. It's almost idiomatic. And if you were with them, and you did not, you would be considered a very dull and unimaginative person."

"Compared to the eloquence of the simplest illiterate Arab," writes Raphael Patai in "The Arab Mind," "the use of English by the average American appears as a series of disjointed grunts." The hallmarks of that eloquence, he continues, are "stylistic elaborateness and stylistic exaggeration."

Thus Saddam Hussein can be described with no apparent embarrassment in Iraqi communiques as "the inheritor of heroism, and symbol of enlightened human thinking ... the leader of the faithful gathering ... the minaret of all mankind."

Metaphor and hyperbole have been hallmarks of political oratory in the English language as well, or were until about 30 years ago when, increasingly bewitched by the spell of television, American politicians began substituting visual imagery for linguistic vigor and rigorous argument.

What makes the Iraqi pronouncements different, of course, is that they are not personal speeches but faceless government communiques. Deeb says that's just the point.

"Saddam Hussein is using language very carefully," she says. "In some places these are appeals to pan-Arab political unity, in other places to the religious unity of Islam, and in still other places to particular groups within Iraq. But usually these are phrased in ways so as to invoke a continuity of history ... the traditional voice of an Arab leader calling to his people."

References to "birds of prey" and the "dens" of the allied leaders, she says, are targeted at Saddam's Bedouin followers, for whom "the metaphors of the desert are a natural form of expression."

But other language addresses more contemporary concerns, she says.

Deeb found particularly interesting a Jan. 25 communique, which says in part:

"Let {the allies} remember that calculations made by computers are not the real calculations. The Iraqis and their great symbol and leader Saddam Hussein have turned the mythic Phantom aircraft and cruise missiles into mundane matters that can be tackled and dealt with militarily through Iraqi-made traditional and technical means. Today, the Americans, the Zionists and their allies roam the desert searching for {Scud} missiles without finding any trace of them. When they are disappointed, the missile blows surprise them... .

"How sweet is the mother of all battles, which will mobilize all the resources of the nation, all the resources and spiritual capabilities of the Muslims, and all the cries of all the suffering and oppressed in the world. The battle of Iraq is the battle of humanity ... of justice against falsehood ... of faith against infidelity. And the leader of the gathering of the faithful is the descendant of Muhammad, the hero Saddam Hussein."

The first part of the statement, Deeb says, is designed to appeal to the conviction among many Arabs that tradition and Islamic faith are more powerful than Western technology. The second, she says, is an obvious effort to portray the Iraqi struggle as a struggle of the entire Third World against the West.

"The third part -- the last sentence -- is perhaps the most interesting of all," she says. "In it Saddam Hussein seeks to portray himself as a blood descendant of the Prophet in the tradition of the great mythical sherifs, or leaders of Islam. This is a rather extraordinary claim."

Throughout the Middle East, she says, there are certain royal families -- like those of King Hussein in Jordan and King Hassan II of Morocco -- whose blood kinship with Muhammad has been acknowledged by Arabs for centuries. "Such ties would strengthen Saddam's claim to leadership of a true jihad, or holy war of believers against unbelievers," she says, but few Arab leaders would have the gall to claim them had they not been long established. Even Nasser made no such claim, she said.

The Jan. 25 communique also states that "the defeat of America is a rectification of the course of civilization, and the start of a new and just international order in which the grandsons of Nebuchadnezzar and Saladin will certainly play a major role."

While countering President Bush's call for a new world order, that statement also attempts to link Iraq's current war, Deeb says, with that of the Babylonians (who conquered and took captive the Jews) and the Arabs who fought the Christians during the Crusades.

"Arabs have a very fluid sense of time," Deeb says. "For them, events like the Crusades, a thousand years ago, are as immediate as yesterday. And they are very, very powerful events in the Arab mind. A lot of Islamic rhetoric revolves around the Crusaders."

Author Patai, in fact, notes that the Arabic language makes little distinction between the immediate past and the distant past -- it has virtually no past perfect tense. This, he says, results in Arab histories "often replete with anachronisms and confused in detail and chronology." The Koran for example, he says, treats Miriam, the sister of Moses, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, who lived some 13 centuries later but has an identical name in Arabic, as the same person.

Perhaps nothing helps explain Saddam Hussein's actions better than the fundamental Islamic notion that the destiny of every man "is written," or predetermined by God.

"For the tradition-bound Arab mind, there is even something sinful in engaging in long-range planning," Patai writes, "because it seems to imply that one does not put one's trust in divine providence."

When combined with the richly poetic and emotional, but often rationally imprecise aspects of the Arabic language, he and other experts say, such fatalism produces a tendency among Arabs to confuse intentions with accomplishments and statements with facts.

George Bush and America's military leaders profess to be confounded by Saddam Hussein's intentions in simply huddling in his bunkers while allied bombs destroy his military machine around him.

They might profit by hearing the story of Goha, a much-loved mythical figure who lives in the proverbs and imagination of Arabs throughout the Middle East. Journalist David Lamb in his book "The Arabs" calls Goha "the quintessential Arab."

"To understand Goha is to comprehend -- to a small degree at least -- the character of the Arab," Lamb writes.

"When the sultan wanted someone to teach his pet donkey to read and write, Goha volunteered. He said the task would take three years, and to accomplish it he would need a villa with servants. The sultan agreed, and the next day Goha and the donkey moved into a splendid mansion. Time passed. Goha's friends came to visit him and found him lounging about in great comfort, while the donkey roamed happily over the gardens. They warned him time and again that if he failed to come up with a literate donkey at the end of three years, he would surely lose his head. But Goha was unperturbed.

"I shall not give up hope," he said. "After all, one of four things might happen: The sultan may die, I may die, the donkey may die or -- who knows? -- the donkey may learn to read and write."