One of the targets hit in the early hours of Iraq's invasion shows what Saddam Hussein wants in Kuwait and why he thinks he can get it. As soon as the emir's palace, the radio and television stations and the national military headquarters were secured, Saddam's troops went straight for Kuwait's Directorate of Nationality and Passports and its citizenship register.

The directorate's records were quickly hauled back to Baghdad. New Kuwaiti identity cards are being passed out to Saddam loyalists in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad residents report to relatives outside the country. Until he is forced to disgorge his conquest, it is Saddam who will decide who is, and who is not, a Kuwaiti.

For half a century, this has meant the power to determine who will be rich, and who will not. All 700,000 Kuwaitis are Arabs, but not all Arabs are Kuwaitis. Saddam hopes to foster the illusion that he can erase that distinction by erasing Kuwait's ruling family. He wants the dispossessed of the Arab world to believe that they will profit from his takeover of Kuwait's oil wealth and to support his adventure.

This is Saddam's big lie, one so enormous that it admits no questioning. It can only be accepted or rejected. Unfortunately this lie is being given credence by the Iraqi dictator's only two Arab allies in the embryonic regional war he has launched. King Hussein of Jordan and PLO chieftain Yasser Arafat support Saddam's pretense that he is acting on behalf of the Arab "have-nots."

They know it is a cynical pretense, one more in the string of delusions Arab leaders have foisted on the Palestinians and other Arabs for four decades. But Saddam's denial of Kuwait's right to statehood also shows the Arabs what they must do now to stop the Iraqi dictator. In characteristically direct fashion, Saddam has taken hold of the Arab world's sorest wound and ripped it open in the belief that doing so will help him.

His invasion challenges the states of the Arabian Peninsula to show whether they are ready at last to become countries instead of large estates run by and for the profit of small, greedy clans. If they flunk the test, they will deserve to be disassembled piecemeal by bigger and stronger forces in the jungle.

By saying he will decide who is Kuwaiti, and even what Kuwait is, Saddam offers Qatar, Abu Dhabi and the other Arab states in the Persian Gulf a course in nation building as they have practiced it themselves. National identity has been a matter of fiat and acquisition rather than of common purpose, history or culture in this area.

But Saddam also demonstrates that there is an alternative: By standing up to Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula peoples would find a common purpose they have historically lacked.

Until oil wealth as vast as it was accidental was discovered in the largely uninhabitable deserts and marshlands of the Arabian Peninsula, national boundaries and identities mattered little to the nomadic tribesmen and pearl-diving fishermen of the region. But once formed into national units by colonial administrators and the multinational oil companies that gave their borders economic meaning, the Kuwaitis, Qataris, Abu Dhabians and others have been fiercely protective of national identities.

This makes the Kuwaitis, who comprise slightly less than 50 percent of the emirate's population, easy targets for Saddam. The Palestinians and other immigrant workers in the oil states are understandably resentful of the small arrogant elites who monopolized wealth they did little to produce. The Kuwaitis spread it around only in the futile hope of buying protection from Saddam and the other bandits of the area.

This is the resentment being tapped by that odd couple of Saddam supporters, King Hussein and Chairman Arafat. They are acting out of a mixture of desperation (the king) and greed (the chairman) in going along with Saddam's occupation of an Arab country.

Tacked on to the big lie is Saddam's big corollary -- that since he has wide support in Arab public opinion he must not be challenged militarily by the United States. This unfortunately is being merchandised on American television, for no cogent reason whatsoever.

CBS Television has filled its screens with man-in-the-street interviews from Amman all week simply because its news star, Dan Rather, is using the Jordanian capital as his base in this era of flying anchormen. The Jordanians -- or rather, Palestinians, as most of those interviewed have been -- not surprisingly echo the line that King Hussein and Arafat have traced in their declarations. CBS has taken the only Arab capital in thrall to the supporters of Saddam and presented it as the weather vane of Arab opinion, as if Egypt and Syria did not exist.

But Arab opinion is not with Saddam. The decision by overly cautious Saudi Arabia to join the American-led effort to draw the line militarily against Saddam is the tip-off that the Iraqi dictator looks like a loser to his fellow Arabs. Turkey's strong decision to put its ties to the United States and Europe before its Islamic and geographic bonds to Iraq is also a sign of a defeat in the making for the Butcher of Baghdad.

That defeat would mark the consolidation of Saudi Arabia as a modern nation. It would give back power and prestige to the United States in the region. George Bush has been right to underline that victory for Saddam in this confrontation is truly unacceptable for the United States.