The Gulf war filters out to the wider world only as a distorted picture. New technological capabilities are the focus of attention, while the surely intense and widespread human suffering is too often neglected under the euphemism of "collateral damage." Iraq's attempt to widen the war by attacking Israel's civilian population cynically seeks to obscure the intent and character of its own actions. The immediacy of conflict also has forced into the background the turbulent but uniquely rich and important history of the region that is today Iraq.

Abandoned cities and villages of the last 8,000 or 9,000 years now take the form of tells or mounds and almost continuously blanket some parts of the country. More at risk from bombing are standing archaeological monuments such as Samarra and the Arch of Ctesiphon. Of greatest concern are Iraq's museums, housing such treasures as Assyrian reliefs, royal tomb offerings from Ur and an unsurpassed wealth of clay tablets with early cuneiform writing -- many still unstudied.

These remains are a priceless heritage of all mankind. Recognizing that accident, miscalculation and uncertainty play a major part in every war, we can only solemnly urge that all parties to the hostilities take every possible measure to protect them and to avoid military operations in their immediate vicinity. Intentional crime or careless error leading to their destruction would almost equally darken the record of any nation or individual responsible.

Mesopotamia was the world's birthplace of urban, literate civilization. Codes of law and other administrative advances, technical and scientific discoveries and lasting contributions to world art and literature accompanied that gigantic achievement, and continued long afterward. Then once again in the early Middle Ages, Islamic Baghdad was a seat of learning and a world capital at a time when most of Europe had been reduced to a near-barbarian periphery. Knowledge of these shining episodes of world leadership may well be a strengthening and unifying element for the Iraqi people today.

As specialists in the antiquities and history of Mesopotamia, we share with scholars in many countries including Iraq a special responsibility for this crucial segment of our common cultural heritage. The onset of the war that Iraq's annexation of Kuwait precipitated has suspended only temporarily, and in no sense diminished, either our sense of responsibility or of colleagueship.

Our collective inheritance of these creative accomplishments, and the meaning they still have for our lives, should not be forgotten even while this war is waged. When hostilities cease, it will be equally important to safeguard Iraq's antiquities and restore the amicable and productive atmosphere of international study of them under Iraqi supervision. Steps should be taken immediately to ensure that at the appropriate time these needs will be adequately met.

ROBERT McC. ADAMS Secretary, Smithsonian Institution Washington PRUDENCE O. HARPER Curator, Ancient Near Eastern Art Metropolitan Museum of Art New York