A MONTH into the war, Saddam Hussein's ruling front sharply changed course yesterday. As usual, the Revolutionary Command Council depicted Iraq as the innocent victim of a vast and foul conspiracy. But this time, far from urging Iraqis to sacrifice to hold Kuwait forever, the Revolutionary Council declared consummation of an epic victory ("Iraq has triumphed"), pronounced Kuwait returnable and appealed for a cease-fire. The council went on to link withdrawal to a list of conditions so lengthy and so remote from the current military proceedings -- to abrogate all U.N. resolutions, to be made financially whole, to remove all foreign arms and forces in the region, to roll back the Israelis, etc. -- as to amount to an Iraqi fantasy. These are the terms President Saddam might have imposed had he won the war

Necessarily, President Bush rejected them. He said withdrawal must be unconditional, and he made plain there can be no pause in the bombing and no cease-fire until Saddam Hussein drops all talk of conditions and starts unmistakably delivering on withdrawal -- his promises are not enough. Here Mr. Bush is respecting the mandate of the United Nations.

He is also drawing the proper conclusions from President Saddam's past treachery. It can be argued that the Iraqi leader, by speaking of withdrawal, has fatally undercut his own forces' morale: How can he now ask them to die for territory he intends to yield? But he still has to be regarded as capable of deceits and surprises. He is dangerous as long as he remains in power. In asking the Iraqi military and people somehow to oust him, President Bush was addressing this reality. He was right to indicate that an Iraq without Saddam Hussein and those whose power flows from his would have an incomparably better chance of resuming normal life after the war.

Perhaps not by accident, the Iraqi foreign minister is due in Moscow this weekend to keep alive the recent Soviet diplomatic initiative. The Soviets have criticized the extent of the American bombing, but they have not wobbled in their stress on full and unconditional Iraqi withdrawal. The Tariq Aziz visit provides an early opportunity to explore the nature of the linkage Iraq has in mind and to test whether it intends anything more than to split the coalition and buy time. Meanwhile, the American-led coalition has no reasonable alternative but to keep applying the military pressure that brought Saddam Hussein to this prospective turning point.