Saddam Hussein understands more clearly than most wartime leaders that his target is the will of the enemy. Even before the "peace" initiative of Feb. 15, he had mounted a relentless campaign of diplomacy and propaganda. He had pursued this campaign in the United Nations, in foreign capitals and in TV studios around the world. All were targeted with the "peace" initiative released in the name of the Revolutionary Command Council.

This "peace" offer contained all the familiar themes of Saddam's propaganda campaign. Once again, he sought to confuse the issue, refocus anger, divide his enemies and paint Iraq as the victim. There was one new element. For the first time, he raised the possibility of Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait.

The proposed withdrawal was shrouded with charges against the "American-Zionist-NATO alliance" and surrounded with outrageous conditions. Still, it indicated that there were -- or might conceivably be -- conditions under which Iraq would withdraw from Kuwait. The demands were unrealistic: repeal of all U.N. resolutions except 660, an end to the embargo of Iraq and all economic measures and policies objectionable to Iraq, selection of a new government of Kuwait, withdrawal of all U.S. and allied forces within 30 days, a commitment by the coalition to rebuild Iraq and, of course, Israel's withdrawal from all "Arab lands."

The offer intensified Saddam's effort to confuse the occupation of Kuwait with what he insists on calling "the situation in the region." Again he tells us it was not the invasion of Kuwait that caused the crisis. The "real cause of the Gulf crisis" was the "negative resolutions and measures taken by some countries against Iraq." It came about when "the evil American-Zionist-NATO alliance" attacked Iraq to achieve "a preplanned and prearranged objective." That preplanned objective, Saddam Hussein had already explained, was the "U.S. imperialist-Zionist bid for dominating the region."

The offer sought again to divide the U.N.'s majority marshaled against Iraq. It appreciates the Soviet Union's efforts for peace. It courts Syria with an explicit demand that Israel return the Golan Heights.

Again, in the "peace" initiative, Iraq is presented as a victim that sought only its "historic rights" and rights of all Arabs. America is presented as the aggressor. "Never in human history" have aggressive forces of such proportion been assembled against a single country. Never in history had so many countries joined forces against a "struggling, brave, forbearing country." The initiative targets American consciences and seeks to arouse American guilt with a heavy emphasis on civilian causalities, on the bombing of women, children and the elderly in their cities and villages. "Even the nomadic Bedouin in the desert" is pursued by American bombs, it is claimed.

The most interesting aspect of the "peace" communique was not its manifest content -- which was outrageous -- but the fact that it was issued at all. It is interesting, too, that it was issued in the name of the Revolutionary Command Council, sometimes referred to as the Unified Council. Was Saddam attempting to give the impression that collective leadership was now guiding Iraq? Is it true? Is he under pressure from his own government? Rumors circulated Friday briefly of a coup attempt in Iraq. President George Bush took the opportunity of the peace initiative to encourage Iraqis to end their country's travail. How long can Saddam last? How long can the allied coalition last? Whose will and survivability are strongest?

Saddam's hopes of splitting the coalition and confusing the issue are not far-fetched. In the past week, Soviet envoys went to Baghdad to attempt a settlement. Now Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz has traveled to Moscow. They were not alone in finding grounds for "hope" in Iraq's offer. The governments of Iran and Yemen saw the communique as a first step toward peace.

Even before Iraq's offer, pressure for a cease-fire mounted. A stream of speakers at the World Council of Churches Conference in Canberra, Australia, found the war effort "disproportionate." In the United Nations, concerns were expressed that the United States and the allies had exceeded their mandate. In Washington, sophisticated observers worried aloud that Saddam was gaining points in the Arab world and about whether the allied majority in the U.N. Security Council will last.

With his offers, as with his accusations, Saddam Hussein tests our clarity of vision and purpose. He challenges us to remember that this war is indeed a contest of wills, a contest in which his will to conquest is pitted against our will to create a less dangerous, more lawful, world.