THE BATTLE of Khafji may set a model for the war. The Iraqis claimed a propaganda triumph for launching the first ground offensive, carrying the war to Saudi soil and engaging a larger coalition force -- this with conscripts, not the elite Republican Guards. The allies brought their superior firepower to bear, saw to it that Arab soldiers (from Saudi Arabia and Qatar) took part in the action and drove the main invading force out.

The Iraqi performance fits a strategic plan: to draw the allies into ground combat with loss of life and then to announce victory for standing up to a superpower and to pursue a cease-fire that leaves Saddam Hussein reduced militarily but still in power. To blunt this plan, American aircraft are attacking his ground presence in Kuwait and southern Iraq. With no working air force, Iraq fights on the ground. With a splendid air force, the United States concentrates on an air campaign -- to avoid casualties, to delay entry into a ground war until it becomes cheaper and unavoidable and, not least, to afford Iraq no tempting ground targets for chemical weapons.

There is no call to declare premature success, and an ugly surprise or two could yet happen. But it is evident that so far the allies are on an effective track. The war is being fought essentially on American terms. The strengths that are being applied are the United States'; the weaknesses that are being exposed are Iraq's. The great bulk of the military forces being damaged are Iraq's. All of the war-making capability and infrastructure being damaged is Iraq's. All of the production and supply lines being closed are Iraq's. The war is taking longer than some expected, but time is not short.

For the first time since this war began on Jan. 16, diplomats of several countries are speaking in their several voices of a cease-fire. They agree that a cease-fire could contain the war and -- important to many allies -- avert a degree of destruction and disintegration of Iraq potentially destabilizing to the region as a whole. Still, in Washington and elsewhere there is a scarcely concealed awareness that this kind of arrangement would cost the coalition its best chance -- an appealing one -- to end Iraq's menace and President Hussein's rule. A cease-fire should only come as a cessation of hostilities with Saddam Hussein's acceptance of the U.N. resolutions and his closely monitored departure from Kuwait.

Has Saddam Hussein now learned the true dimensions of his peril? If he shows any interest in accepting the U.N. resolutions, one consideration is paramount. There can be no pause and no relenting in the war merely on the basis -- the French formula -- of his stated intent to leave Kuwait. Concerning "pauses" and other kinds of mutual restraint being talked about at the moment that requires any degree of confidence in Saddam Hussein's "good faith," it is worth remembering that at Khafji Iraqi tanks approached with turrets reversed to signal surrender and then turned them forward to fire.