IS THERE something to the latest Soviet peace bid in Iraq? Successive foreign envoys have journeyed to Baghdad trying to stop the fighting. Until now, at least, Saddam Hussein has rebuffed them all, even those who asked of him not that he leave Kuwait -- this is the necessary minimal requirement, and Moscow insists it upholds it -- but only that he announce an intention to leave.

No one can say for sure why Saddam Hussein has to this point chosen defiance over foreign initiatives that promise to lose him Kuwait but to spare Iraq great further misery. But it is notable that in the way he has defined the war, the issue extends well beyond Kuwait. The real issue, as his deputy prime minister typically stated it in rebuffing an Iranian peace mission last week, is "American, colonialist and Zionist aggression to destroy Iraq and control the region." Hence the Iraqi view that the burden of ending the war falls on Washington, which must "renounce its designs."

Iraq has things backward. Not only is there no "Zionist aggression" -- Israeli participation -- in the coalition opposing the grab of Kuwait. The "destruction" or bombing of Iraq is not an American "design" but a tactic meant in the first instance to dislodge his invasion forces. As for postwar "control," the American government's stated intent is to remove its own ground forces, trim back the outsized American presence prompted by the Iraqi invasion and draw countries of the region into greater responsibility for their own security. Do these self-denying pledges leave Saddam Hussein cold? He can test them by leaving Kuwait.

After more than 60,000 sorties overall, bombing of residual Iraqi targets goes on, by way of either eliminating the need for ground action or reducing the potential number of allied casualties in such an action. Mikhail Gorbachev is not alone in noting the targeting of bridges and power plants with civilian as well as military uses. The Baghdad bunker in which the Iraqis reported grievous civilian losses seems to have been in the dual-use category. This has provoked the question of whether Washington is taking the bombing beyond the agreed international purpose of liberating Kuwait into a strictly American purpose of breaking Saddam Hussein and his military machine.

To which administration officials respond by wishing well any emissary who can deliver Iraq to full immediate unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait. American authorities have got to pay scrupulous attention to the risks of hitting civilians, even if Iraq forces its own citizens to be "human shields." But there cannot be the slightest doubt that Baghdad's compliance with the U.N. standard would end the military punishment of Iraq.