Americans feel relief and joy that U.S. and allied combat casualties remain miraculously low after nearly three weeks of fighting. But a grim mirror image of mounting Iraqi casualties must now temper American relief and the American strategy in the Gulf war.

War's efficiency lies in visiting death and destruction in ever greater quantity on the other side. This war's ultimate meaning lies in limiting such loss to an absolute minimum.

Saddam Hussein promised the world that rivers of blood would flow if America fought to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. But he did not admit that the blood would be almost entirely Iraqi. By design or callousness, Saddam's last desperate gamble is to provoke a bloodbath against his own people.

Three weeks of war show Iraq to be more willing to fight but less able to protect its soldiers and people than expected. This deadly combination will produce a human disaster for Iraq of historic proportions if Saddam persists in his folly of clinging to Kuwait at all costs.

Iraq's surprises -- a ground attack into Saudi Arabia, the decamping of Iraq's best warplanes and pilots to Iran, the ecological terrorism of spilling oil into the Persian Gulf -- smack of desperation and weakness rather than hidden strategic brilliance. They contain hints of a mad logic in which Saddam seeks not to avoid the impending tragedy he has set in motion; he seeks to exploit it.

After-battle assessments of the fight around the Saudi ghost town of Khafji show both parts of the macabre combination of surprising Iraqi will and weakness in microcosm.

The mechanized units that came across the Kuwaiti frontier possessed an ability to move and fight at night that surprised U.S. strategists. But the Iraqi tank units made the advance without any effective anti-aircraft artillery cover. They were open targets for U.S. tactical fighters.

An Iraqi column operating west of Khafji sought to retreat back into Kuwait when American forces engaged them. But the Iraqis lost their path back through their own mine fields. They invited destruction by moving in either direction. Most of the 400 to 500 Iraqi prisoners of war captured in the engagement were taken from this column, Pentagon briefers indicated to congressional officials.

Unlike most armchair analysts, Pentagon officials see no grand strategy in Saddam's battlefield moves. Increasingly Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell, indicate that "they have given up on Saddam making a rational decision about pulling out of Kuwait," says one official who attends their secret briefings. "Reading between the lines of what they say, you conclude that Cheney and Powell now think that Saddam has crossed over into a zone beyond reason and perhaps beyond sanity."

They may be right -- in which case applying massive, unrelenting force is America's only option for ending this war. But Saddam may be following a particularly grisly strategy of turning weakness into strength. He may rely on a mountain of Iraqi dead -- instead of the 10,000 American dead he promised at the outset -- to shatter Western resolve and turn American and European opinion against the war.

The first three weeks of the war have shown the exaggerated nature of the three fears most often cited by Americans who opposed fighting Iraq now (or ever in many cases). These were the danger of high American casualties, the backlash that the U.S.-led war effort would generate in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the other key Arab countries, and the indiscriminate slaughter of Iraqi civilians in U.S. bombing raids.

None of these has happened. A disciplined allied strategic bombing campaign operating without opposition from Iraqi air defenses proved in the opening days of the war that a "surgical" air strike was possible. Those who heaped abuse on the idea should take a look at what is left of Saddam's Defense Ministry.

But the war is now at a turning point. In the air, the original target list in Iraq, meticulously prepared over five months, has been completed. After a hiatus that undoubtedly involved reprogramming warhead computers with new and less precise information, to hit more difficult-to-reach targets, cruise missiles are again being fired at Baghdad. This may mean that journalists who have been allowed into Iraq for one purpose -- to report on civilian casualties and nothing else -- will have work to do. They will be ferried by the Iraqis to scenes of suffering at every opportunity.

Moreover, America moves toward a ground offensive that will necessarily destroy whatever stands in its way. John Keegan, Britain's preeminent military historian, predicts (in horror) that "the Iraqi army will suffer a catastrophic defeat . . . An army parked in the desert without air cover has no option but to sit still and pray."

The initial American objective should be to use a ground thrust to isolate and starve out the Iraqi occupation army, not to isolate and "kill" it as Powell said at a recent press conference.

This word was the only flaw in an otherwise brilliant military and political performance by Powell since Aug. 2. He may have only been saying that the pattern of Iraqi will and weakness makes the surrender option less likely. But it is vital that Arabs, Americans and the rest of the world understand through U.S. words and deeds that the destruction of Iraq's army and innocent civilians left in harm's way was not America's strategy but Saddam's.