BAGHDAD -- Although the ton of bricks that hit Saddam Hussein when Iraq annexed Kuwait did not deck him, its cumulative weight is leading his government to consider remedies inconceivable three weeks ago.

A major reason for this, in the view of officials we have talked to here, has little to do with U.N. sanctions and a lot to do with oil. It is the question of who is to control the richest oil reserves: the Arabs who live on top of them or the United States, which consumes them.

Saddam's men do not talk about the great oil question straight out. It is discussed elliptically. But a thin light gleams through: in order to reduce or get rid of the U.S. military power accumulating in the Gulf, Iraq might offer what one Arab head of state -- not Saddam -- calls a ''commitment to withdraw'' by Iraq.

There is a difference between a ''commitment'' to withdraw and actual withdrawal. Iraq's commitment would be tied to a U.N. agreement to allow an ''Arab solution'' as to what the new government would be -- though Iraqi control is not possible. If this Arab solution also dealt with long-standing, recognized territorial disputes, Saddam might give the commitment.

The new government could be determined by Kuwaiti elections, in which the ousted emir would be trounced; temporary control by Arab states themselves; or the return of a member of the ruling Sabah family more acceptable to Iraq than the currently reigning Sheik Jaber Ahmed.

That would rid Kuwait of Iraqi control and thus be a major victory for President Bush. His rationale for the big U.S. military buildup is to force Iraq out of Kuwait. Lesser reasons include restoration of the former rulers, protection of Saudi Arabia and its oil fields and -- whispered vaguely in the background -- the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

But the operative U.N. resolution says: get Iraq out of Kuwait. If an Arab solution on the governance of Kuwait were reached and the Iraqi infection excised, Bush would find it difficult and politically perilous to insist on keeping a huge military force in the Saudi deserts.

What worries the entire Iraqi political establishment is the suspicion that Bush's real purpose is to keep that American military machine in Saudi Arabia for years to come. Saddam's insiders claim that the annexation of Kuwait gave the United States the pretext it wanted to get U.N. support for the dispatch of U.S. troops. This imputation of U.S. motives, lacking any proof, is a source of anger for not only Iraqi leaders but other Arab nationalists.

Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, a key member of Saddam's Baath Revolutionary Command Council, told us Iraq's past policy on OPEC oil production levels and pricing goals ''never was used against the United States.''

''Can the West obtain credible assurances that if Iraq had control of 20 percent of world oil {Iraq plus Kuwait} the United States will not be gouged?'' asked another high official. ''Of course it can. Our record proves it.'' For its own economic growth, Tariq Aziz said, Iraq wants stability in oil markets, not unfairly high prices that encourage alternative fuels.

Long-term U.S. intentions to keep major military force in the Gulf to protect its oil interests would mean only one thing to Iraq: a return to the hated British colonial era. London set up tribal families as governments throughout the region -- including Kuwait -- to control oil for Western interests under British safekeeping.

Whether the United States would consider any such diplomatic arrangement as a ''commitment to withdraw'' is up to George Bush. But as the U.S. military buildup continues and the dangers of war-by-accident grow, some such tricky -- or ingenious -- device will be needed.

World War II was the only major conflict that the United States settled by unconditional surrender. Iraq and Saddam Hussein simply do not qualify as Nazi Germany and Hitler.