A REPORT that the embargo is hurting the children of Iraq has come from International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, a group that received a Nobel Peace Prize for publicizing the dangers of war. It is an unsettling report, based on a trip to Baghdad by five members of the group, and deserves to be taken seriously. Obviously the Iraqi government seeks to make political capital out of the reported suffering of its children. Its evident purpose is to break the embargo. But its purpose would not excuse the willful infliction of harm on children.

International Physicians was told that "no vaccines, no medicines" are reaching Iraq, and that the infant mortality rate has doubled. Though the effects on health are hard to confirm, there seems little reason to doubt that some civilian shortages of milk, formula and medicines are developing. But who is responsible? In imposing the embargo, the United Nations kept open loopholes for medicine and food. These could be sent in under its supervision. The U.N. would determine Iraq's civilian needs and make sure supplies were distributed in accordance with them.

It is possible that the embargo may be cutting off some permitted deliveries as well as proscribed ones. But Saddam Hussein has taken a political decision not to accept U.N. authority over medical shipments or anything else; he regards the U.N. as a wicked body suborned by the United States. He himself must be held responsible for not availing himself of the means -- a request to the U.N. -- of bringing in necessary civilian supplies. As his imports of chemical and nuclear weapons materials indicate, moreover, he is not unpracticed in the ways of circumventing international trade controls.

All this is germane to the argument over whether an extended international embargo can help move Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. From the start, one cynical tactic open to him has been to assert that the embargo, while it does not undermine his military capacity, does hurt civilians. His hosting and briefing of the doctors' mission indicates he has begun to make a display of the alleged impact and to try to shift the blame for it to the embargo. Nothing in his copious record of disregard for the rights of his unconsulted subjects suggests this would give him qualms. Others meet their obligations by pointing to the channels he could easily use for relief.