"SADDAM HUSSEIN continues to amaze the world," President Bush said on Friday, pointing to the Iraqi leader's lobbing of Scuds at Israel and Saudi Arabia, his dumping of millions of gallons of oil into the Persian Gulf, his parading of prisoners of war and his flaring of Kuwaiti oil wells and storage tanks. These actions, the president observed, conform to no military doctrine.

Saddam's continued ability to surprise the West stems from our difficulty in penetrating his mindset and comprehending the political context in which he operates. The oil slick may outrage the Westerner, but in the Arab world it may pale in comparison with the massive coalition bombing of Iraq.

Understanding the adversary is essential to the success of any war effort. The United States faces a shrewd if brutal adversary who will push things to extremes when he deems it necessary to pursue his strategy. Acts that may appear irrational to us make better sense when that strategy is understood. While the thinking of Iraq and its leader are notoriously difficult to penetrate, thus far both official statements and the pattern of Iraqi actions provide several indications of what the United States can expect.

Saddam cannot hope to win a victory on the battlefields -- and he knows it. Hence his strategy will be designed to achieve a political victory, defined as survival of himself and his regime. Four elements of this strategy are already apparent:

Prolonging the war and disrupting the coalition. Saddam estimates that time is on his side politically. He sees his strength in his unparalleled control over his own population and his remarkable record of political survival -- 22 years in a country notoriously difficult to govern. His civil defense efforts and his ability to keep up the morale of his troops at the front may be more important than military strikes.

The time he buys will be used to disrupt the coalition arrayed against him, to destabilize and possibly even overthrow Middle Eastern governments allied with the West and to weaken domestic support for the war in Europe, the United States and the Soviet Union.

In the Middle East, the most vulnerable coalition members are Morocco, Egypt and possibly Turkey, where public opinion, in varying degrees, is susceptible to his anti-war propaganda.

In Morocco, where economic difficulities and unemployment are causing problems for the regime, King Hasan has been presented with popular petitions urging a cease-fire.

In Turkey, where President Turgut Ozal's support for the coalition has been firm and far-reaching (in hopes of reaping later benefits from the European Community), domestic fissures are already appearing. Turkey's defense minister and armed forces chief of staff resigned, reportedly over disagreements on limits to be placed on the country's cooperation; much of the military and foreign policy establishment is said to be opposed to active participation in the war by Turkey and the use of its bases for coalition attacks on Iraq.

In Egypt, public opinion may gradually be affected by arguments, however spurious, that the coalition is attempting not to remove Iraq from Kuwait, but to destroy Iraq. Iraq's attempts to depict Israel as the only winner and to portray the war as a Western crusade against the Moslem world may strike resonant chords among Egypt's active Islamic movements. Recent reports that Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak has extended school holidays fearing anti-war demonstrations, and the defensive tone of his Jan. 24 speech to parliament, already indicate the kinds of reactions that such pressure may induce. A still more serious threat is that Saddam may be expected to deploy or encourage terrorist attacks on the leadership of some coalition members to make his point.

In Europe, Saddam will probably focus his attention on France, Germany and the Soviet Union as potential coalition backsliders. France, Iraq's traditional economic partner and one of its chief military suppliers, is interested in recapturing the Iraqi market after the war. French President Francois Mitterand was more active than other coalition partners in seeking a prewar diplomatic solution, and France's defense minister is on record as having opposed the war.

Germany, although not contributing military forces, has a strong pacifist movement and Iraq may hope to use it to influence other European coalition members {see story on Page C4}.

Even more important in Iraqi thinking -- and dangerous to long-run U.S. interests in the gulf region -- may be the Soviet Union, now convulsed by internal struggles. Conservative forces in the foreign and defense ministries and the military, all of which have had strong ties with Iraq, reportedly do not favor the war and may have an interest in retaining influence and military contracts in Iraq in its aftermath. It was the Soviet reformers, now in eclipse, who frowned on Saddam's dictatorial rule and favored a cooperative policy with the United States on Iraqi policy. Iraq's concerted opening to Iran, which is itself engaged in strengthening economic and military ties with the U.S.S.R, could facilitate this process. Reports of arms shipments through Iran to Iraq have surfaced recently. For its own reasons, Iran also has an interest in prolonging, rather than ending, the war. Seeking a propaganda victory. The longer the war lasts, the more time Saddam's propaganda machine will have to do its work. Already some of the themes he will stress are apparent. In the Arab world, Saddam will pose as both hero and victim. In the former guise, he will exaggerate his military strikes at Israel and coalition members, claiming that he is restoring "Arab pride." Above all, merely by surviving, he will be able to claim victory as the man who defied the West and lived to boast about it -- even if he loses Kuwait in the bargain. At the same time, he will attempt to gain sympathy -- inside and outside the Middle East -- as a victim, a strong Arab power singled out by the West for destruction. As more casualties are inflicted on Iraqi troops, this effect will intensify. As in the Iran-Iraq war, Iraq will claim that it is fighting not just for itself, but for Arab, and even Third World, interests. Inflicting unacceptable casualties. Another pillar of Saddam's strategy will be to draw the coalition into a ground battle in which he hopes to inflict an unacceptable level of casualties on coalition -- and especially U.S. -- forces. Saddam is convinced that the United States has not recuperated from the Vietnam syndrome or the 1983 bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut.

Saddam told Ambassador April Glaspie in the now famous conversation of last July that Americans could not withstand the loss of 10,000 soldiers in one battle, as the Iraqis had in the Iran-Iraq war. He is also counting on winning the battle for public opinion inside the United States, where he hopes protests and other forms of dissent will swell, taking their toll on the Bush administration and encouraging Congress to put a stop to the war. Saddam has a poor track record in understanding the U.S. political system and in assessing public opinion, but America will need to have patience and understand that time, in this war, is a trade-off for casualties that would be suffered if the land battle is joined too early. In the absence of any significant U.S. casualties thus far, Saddam has paraded U.S. and other coalition POWs on TV as a rough equivalent. Widening the war. If Saddam can draw Israel into the battle, he calculates that he can discredit regional participants in the coalition. Saddam has skillfully played on Arab frustration over failure to solve the Arab-Israeli problem -- now at a fever pitch in the area -- although he does not grasp its complexity or have any programatic ideas for its solution. He has also played on residual Arab and Third World feelings of "humiliation" at the hands of former colonial powers and will invoke "the mother of battles" to gain support in the non-Arab world as well. Meanwhile, he will attempt to weaken the legitimacy of regimes collaborating with the West in the region.

In this context it is important to understand a "conspiracy theory" that has increasingly gripped Iraqi thinking and that is also widely believed in the Arab and Moslem worlds. In this view the "West" (the United States, Great Britain, and other European allies) and its regional collaborator, Israel, are out to weaken and possibly destroy Iraq, the only Arab state capable of standing up to Israel and to Western imperialism. In this view, these forces were somehow responsible for precipitating the Iran-Iraq war and for keeping it going in an effort to debilitate Iraq. When this failed and Iraq emerged as the strongest Arab military power in the region, the West and Israel turned to other means.

Western criticism of Iraq for its use of chemical weapons and human rights record, never accepted in Iraq at face value, were viewed as part of an attempt to selectively discredit Saddam's regime. A still more significant element in the conspiracy scenario is the belief that the West was trying to weaken Iraq economically by restricting credits, threatening sanctions and tightening controls on the transfer of technology. Indeed, in the months before the invasion of Kuwait, Iraq came to believe that Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates were part of a conspiracy involving the United States to lower oil prices through over-production in order to ruin Iraq's economy -- an act the Iraqis officially characterized as the equivalent of war. Indeed, this conspiracy was cited by Iraqi officials as a justification for its invasion of Kuwait. Iraq is now claiming that the coalition's concentrated bombing vindicates this theory. To suggest the outlines of an Iraqi strategy is not to make any claims for its success. Arab opinion remains divided on the war and on Saddam himself. Arab coalition partners have made it clear that an Israeli response in kind to Iraqi attacks will not destroy the coalition. Thus far Israel has gained international support for its restraint -- a net gain for Israel and a loss for Saddam and the Palestinians, who aligned their cause with Saddam's.

Some of Saddam's propaganda attempts have also seriously backfired. His use of Western hostages last fall and his current display of the POWs are good examples. The POW issue is probably meant to convey several messages to different audiences. To Arabs, it may signal humiliation of the United States and substantiation of Saddam's claims that he is successfully standing up to the West. To domestic U.S. audiences it may be meant as an encouragement to peace movements. Most important of all, the obvious mistreatment of the prisoners may be designed to intimidate coalition military personnel. The effort is likely to have just the opposite effect, angering the West and stiffening its resolve.

Finally, the discrepancy between Saddam's real and rhetorical gains is very wide indeed. Thus far, a few Scuds in Tel Aviv, Riyadh and Dhahran and the downing of several allied planes have not matched the relentless pounding of Iraq's military and economic infrastructure.

At this point Saddam is hoping that his stand will compel the coalition to accept a cease-fire on terms that leave his regional stature intact -- an unlikely eventuality. But the real test of Saddam's strategy will come in the future, when the pain inflicted by the coalition is much greater and the destruction of his military may make survival more tenuous. Saddam could face one or more of the following perils: a serious threat of overthrow by members of the military or political establishment; widespread desertions in the front-line troops; and even a military collapse of his troops signaling not only defeat, but an inability of the regime -- and possibly the country -- to protect itself.

Would Saddam then be willing to call it quits or would he fight on in some remote bunker to the last Iraqi in an effort to secure his status as an Arab hero? Would he revert to the "flexibility" he has demonstrated previously and accept one of the cease-fire offers that are certain to be circulated, hoping to survive in the postwar period? It's hard to say at this point, but much may depend on his war performance and his perceived credibility in "standing up to the West."

The greatest weakness of Saddam's strategy may be his proclivity to overestimate his own strength and underestimate that of his adversaries. Saddam has been characterized as a "brinksman" who often fails to recognize the brink. Although he appears intent on political survival, he may be unable to recognize the point of collapse until he has reached it.