SADDAM Hussein's threats to answer the economic embargo by striking "oil, the region and Israel" suggest that the sanctions are biting. But the threats have to be dealt with on their own terms. To take them too literally is to risk becoming his propaganda megaphone in the war of wills he is conducting with President Bush, but to ignore them is to be blind to the obligations of prudence. In words anyway, the Iraqi leader is breaching the wall raised by the enforcers of the embargo. They seek to apply economic pressures before turning to consider military ones. He warns that his response to the effort "to strangle the people of Iraq" will be not just circumvention, belt-tightening and the like, but violence. The violence he envisions goes beyond the parties to the Gulf dispute to Israel, which is not a party and has striven to avoid being drawn in.

Who knows how Saddam Hussein might react in a showdown? But it is notable that he has stood by, without taking further military action and without being able to add to his own military resources, while the United States has built up an awesome expeditionary force and other countries have pitched in too. The threat he poses to Saudi oil fields and Israel has not grown since he grabbed Kuwait on Aug. 2: it was considerable then and it is considerable now. But the threat posed by the coalition ranged against him has grown geometrically. True, he has a new set of targets in those opposing forces. But they have immense capabilities to respond.

In insisting again that American forces withdraw, Saddam Hussein rejected again any notion of heeding repeated United Nations demands to turn the clock back to Aug. 1. He also spurned suggestions of Arab "good offices," repeating his sand-in-the-eyes offer of Aug. 12 to consider unspecified "arrangements for the case of Kuwait" only as the sequel to a general Middle East settlement on one-sided Iraqi terms. What "arrangements" might he have in mind? Currently he is terrorizing, depopulating and vandalizing Kuwait in an attempt to wipe it out as an independent state before an international process to treat its fate can be organized.

Saddam Hussein's threats are the cry of an aggressor who retains a capacity to do harm and to loosen the coalition arrayed against him but who is seeing the military balance tip against him and who is now gambling wildly with the fate of Iraq. For the allies in this cause, it is a time for steadiness and care.