RICHMOND, SEPT. 7 -- State Insurance Commissioner Stephen T. Foster has begun a campaign to make life insurance more readily available to military personnel bound for the Middle East.

Foster, acting on complaints gathered by a naval officer in the Hampton Roads area, had threatened to sue five companies that reportedly rejected applicants headed for the Persian Gulf region.

But Foster said he backed off after several companies agreed to write policies with the proviso that combat deaths be excluded.

Foster said he will urge his fellow state insurance commissioners, meeting in Kansas City this weekend, to encourage companies to make life insurance available.

A Pentagon spokesman, Air Force Maj. Doug Hart, said most military personnel buy a low-cost $50,000 government life insurance policy, which costs about $4 a month and has no war-exclusion clause.

Jim Longo, spokesman for Prudential Life Insurance Co. of America, one of the two largest life insurance underwriters, said his company, which has no war-exclusion clause in its policies, will neither write new policies, nor allow any current military or civilian policyholders to increase their coverage if they are headed for the Gulf area. Current Prudential policyholders, however, remain covered, even in combat, Longo said.

Among other companies who refused initially to write such policies for military personnel, according to Foster, were Life of Virginia, John Hancock, Travelers, Allstate and American Amicable. Some of them have now reconsidered, Foster said.

The controversy began Aug. 9 when Allstate, the nation's ninth largest writer of life insurance, announced that it would not accept applications for life insurance from military personnel stationed in or ordered to the Persian Gulf region. Since Aug. 20, Allstate has been providing insurance after reinstating its war-exclusion policy, last used during the Vietnam War.

Gene Grabowski, spokesman for the American Council on Life Insurance, said that while some companies have stopped writing policies, coverage is available.

Grabowski said: "Just as if you're an airline pilot or a heavy smoker, you'll pay a higher premium."