Despite efforts to persuade them otherwise, Iraqis know that losing is not winning. Losing in war is pain, death and devastation. Baghdad Radio admitted as much on Friday by initiating an intricate charade of surrendering Kuwait to save Iraq.

The battlefield and diplomatic implications of Friday's heavily conditioned appeal for a cease-fire are predictably murky. Armchair ambassadors and generals find gold or dross in the deliberately ambiguous communique in equal measure. They analyze the dew on an early spring blossom.

The broadcast resonates in human, not analytical, terms. More important than the communique were the celebrations that it triggered in Baghdad's shattered streets. More important than the unsatisfactory terms laid out for an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait was the human desperation and suffering behind the Radio Baghdad broadcast.

Hold in your memory those smiling Iraqi faces glimpsed on television as the news spread that they might have to give up Kuwait. The contrast between the message of loss and the feeling of gain tell the important story of this war and the terrible costs that a dictator has inflicted on his own people.

Those faces tell us that the Battle of Kuwait has been settled by American air power. Those faces tell us that Saddam Hussein is vulnerable and perhaps already marginalized. Those tentative but genuine smiles show most of all that Iraqis and other Arabs are not some strange illogical subspecies of humanity who adore and venerate "leaders" who drag them into disaster. They feel, and reason, too.

That is, those brief street scenes on Friday undermine key assumptions pressed on the American public by Arabists, the regional experts who warned that unending disaster would come from American military strikes against an Arab nation. Saddam would win by losing: he would emulate Gamal Abdel Nasser and become a hero to the people of Baghdad and the entire Arab world. Better to not give him the chance by using force against him.

Baghdad Radio provides a poignant if inadvertent rebuttal to this patronizing denigration of Arabs as people who do not draw logical conclusions in the face of impending disaster. Heard abroad, the broadcast was an opening bid in negotiations for a cease-fire. At home, it was a signal that Saddam has written off Kuwait and the occupation army there.

Why else the elaborate, self-pitying recitation by the Voice of Saddam of the bridges, highways, dams, government centers and a host of other destroyed installations in "Iraq, the struggling, the brave, the forbearing, whose population does not exceed 18 million"?

This is not to say that there is no political cost for America in leading the war effort or that the killing is over on the Kuwaiti battlefield. Neither proposition is true.

But the political costs for America turn out to be far more manageable than the Saddam-as-Nasser argument suggests. Actually aided by American bombing, Saddam's Baathist lieutenants may be finally moving to constrain his folly.

Iraqi dissidents abroad who closely monitor developments in Baghdad believe that the bombing has shattered both the communications network and the mobility of the Directorate of General Intelligence, Saddam's greatly feared secret police, which he organized to stifle dissent and as a counterweight to the army. For the first time, Saddam's overthrow is within reach. President Bush signaled this much on Friday.

The president's message to Baghdad was artfully modulated. Only Saddam's ouster can stay, even for a moment, the ground offensive America is about to launch into the Iraqi desert. That is not expanding the coalition's war aim. That is stating a necessary precondition for avoiding the Battle of Iraq.

If Saddam has given up on Kuwait, then he may also hold back his Republican Guard units in Iraqi territory when the war is engaged on the ground. They will become not a reserve force for Kuwait, but a blocking force against a march on Baghdad. He would also continue to hold back on poison gas attacks and terrorist outrages in America. Saddam knows these acts will make his head a sustainable war aim.

He labors to let the occupation troops kill and be killed while he exploits a distinction between military action to liberate Kuwait (the Battle of Kuwait) and military action to bring him down (the Battle of Iraq). Dropping the reference to "the 19th province" and acknowledging U.N. resolution 660 on Friday begins to establish that distinction, which allied strategy has deliberately blurred.

The probe for cease-fire terms by the Revolutionary Command Council, which discreetly avoided mention of Saddam's name, complicates President Bush's task in this climactic phase of Operation Desert Storm. Does Bush launch a ground invasion that includes going to Baghdad if Saddam is still standing when Kuwait falls? Or does Bush decide to ride out of Dodge City at that point, as his present inclination appears to be?

Saddam does not want to be Nasser, who was in fact a broken, ineffectual figure on the Arab scene after his 1967 defeat. He wants to continue to be Saddam at home, since he cannot be Saddam abroad. That is an unacceptable outcome. The Battle for Iraq must leave him without control of the bloated army, weapons of mass destruction and terror apparatus he has used on his neighbors and on Iraqis. We cannot let Saddam be Saddam, abroad or at home.