Sheik Ahmad Kaftaro, Syria's chief Islamic leader, just laughed at Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's call on other Moslems in the Mideast this week to wage a jihad, or holy war, against the multinational military force in Saudi Arabia.

"This is not a holy war," he said of the Persian Gulf crisis. "It's a war for petroleum. I'm the one in the holy war."

Kaftaro, on a private visit and accompanied by an interpreter and a video camera, chooses his words carefully. But it is clear that he sees the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait as the aggressive act of a secular state that cannot be justifed on religious grounds. This is one of the messages he said he delivers to thousands of Moslems during Friday worship services in Damascus.

The grand mufti to Syria's majority Sunni Moslem population, Kaftaro said the true battle is persuading Christians, Jews and Moslems to study the beliefs they have in common and use their similarities to work for peace. He has been preaching this message for 40 years, he said, years of erratic but regular hostilities in the Mideast propelled by religious differences: Christian and Moslem, Jewish and Moslem, Moslem and Moslem.

The principles of the Koran, as explained by Kaftaro, both hurt and help Saddam Hussein.

"Islam always demands that we should help those who come under aggression or oppression," he said. This, then, would seem to indicate that Syria and other Moslem countries are correct to defend Kuwait against Iraq.

But the prophet Mohammed also taught that disputes within a family, such as the family of Arab nations, should be resolved within the family. "Things that took place should not have gone beyond the Arab League," Kaftaro said, indicating his desire that Americans and other foreigners leave and let the Arab states settle their differences.

Kaftaro is a member of a special brotherhood of Moslems, but if there is a revolutionary side to him, it doesn't show.

He said his country, wracked by internal religious repression in the early 1980s, has settled down and that Syrians now enjoy religious freedom. He said the government of President Hafez Assad, "my friend {for} 25 years," has supported the opening of a new college of Islamic studies in Damascus as well as two new secondary schools.

He is heartened, he said, by the Soviet Union's agreement to establish an Islamic center in Moscow and to allow the growing number of Moslems in central Asia to practice their faith without interference. He said those Moslems consider him "their spiritual brother and father" and that he does not support their drive toward independence "for the time being."

Kaftaro was in Washington to address a forum sponsored by Legacy International, an educational organization specializing in conflict resolution. He has visited the United States several times in the last 25 years, he said, and on this visit he was disturbed by reports of an increase in the use of illegal drugs and alcohol among Americans.

This may help explain the growing popularity of Islam in the United States, he said, for Islam provides its believers with rules governing a person's physical as well as spiritual health. Kaftaro himself says he supplements a strict diet with occasional fasts from two to three weeks long.