KUWAIT, JULY 20 -- The crown prince of this oil emirate today offered to discuss providing military support facilities for the American air and naval forces taking up escort duty for Kuwaiti shipping this week. He also appealed to Iran to abide by a United Nations cease-fire resolution in its war with Iraq.

Sheik Abdullah Salim Sabah's rare appearance before the international news media came on a day when U.S. captains boarded two Kuwaiti tankers at anchor just outside the Persian Gulf, and a shipping source said the U.S. flag already may have been hoisted on the vessels, the Bridgeton and the Gas Prince, news agencies reported.

{In Washington, the White House announced that the Bridgeton will be reflagged Tuesday, but declined to say when it would set sail.}

"Kuwait is a small, peace loving country," Sabah told 150 reporters gathered at a marble-and-crystal conference hall here. Sabah, who also serves as prime minister, defended his country's decision to invite the two superpowers, as well as China, France and Great Britain, to guarantee the free passage of Kuwait's oil tanker fleet through the Persian Gulf.

"We do not wish to involve the superpowers in a dispute or conflict in this region," he said.

Kuwait's decision to seek military protection from the world's maritime powers, Sabah said, "is not a provocation to anyone {and} neither is it directed at anyone."

Kuwait has supported Iraq throughout the seven-year-old gulf war and has suffered not only attacks on its shipping and escalating threats on its territory, but also internal violence and sabotage on its oil facilities, some of it committed by Kuwaiti citizens who are pro-Iranian. Thirty percent of Kuwaiti nationals derive from Iranian or Shiite ancestry.

Sabah's public appearance, the second by a senior Kuwaiti official in a month, was seen by western diplomats here as another facet of Kuwait's intense diplomatic campaign to focus world attention on the external threats to this lightly defended oil kingdom.

"The more stories, the more analyses, the more television they can get {indicating

that this is a big, big international problem, the better off they feel they'll be," one western diplomat said today.

In a news conference that lasted nearly three hours, Sabah reiterated that the approaches to Kuwait's oil loading port have been cleared of mines and are ready to receive the first Kuwaiti supertanker flying the American flag.

The Bridgeton, accompanied by the smaller natural gas carrier Gas Prince, is expected Tuesday or Wednesday to get under way from an anchorage outside the Strait of Hormuz and make the 2 1/2-day run through gulf waters where for 11 months Iranian gunboats have peppered Kuwait-bound shipping with missiles, grenades and gunfire.

The United States has assembled a 15-ship naval task force to provide escort service for the reflagged Kuwaiti vessels, all of which will make their inaugural runs through the gulf in the next five weeks.

A television crew attempting to film the task force was chased away by a U.S. helicopter today, Reuter reported.

A western official said the shuttle operation involving 11 Kuwaiti ships under U.S. flags will put as much as 50 percent of Kuwait's petroleum exports under U.S. protection.

Sabah began the news conference in Arabic, but switched to English when an American newsman asked why Kuwait sought U.S. military protection but at the same time refused to allow U.S. ships and aircraft the right to base in Kuwait or fly over its territory.

"I'm sure the members of the American {Defense} department know our position that we are not ready to offer air bases or naval bases," Sabah said.

But he later added, "In the case that the Americans need some of our facilities, this could be discussed."

The United States has not requested basing rights from Kuwait, but has been allowed to refuel naval vessels and aircraft at Kuwaiti military facilities, western diplomatic sources said.

One western official said U.S. aircraft have used Kuwaiti bases 15 times in the past six months. Most recently, an 18-man U.S. Navy team assisting in mine clearing operations off Kuwait has been stationed in Kuwait, and sophisticated U.S. sonar gear has been mounted on Kuwaiti vessels still searching for mines.

Iran has stepped up checks on merchant shipping in the strait, Reuter reported shipping sources as saying today. They said Iran's regular naval force of four frigates operating at the mouth of the gulf has been unusually active in challenging merchant shipping in the past few days.

Sabah said Kuwait's leadership has not discussed with the Reagan administration what steps U.S. military forces would take if a reflagged Kuwaiti tanker or its naval escort is fired upon by Iranian gunboats.

"These are now American vessels carrying the American flag. I am sure that America will defend the American flag," he said.

He also sidestepped questions about whether Kuwait has asked Iraq to withhold attacks on Iranian shipping and oil facilities in the wake of the U.N. cease-fire vote and as the U.S. escort operation gets under way.

A Kuwaiti newspaper reported today that Iraq would stop attacking "big targets at sea" for days or weeks following the passage of the U.N. resolution. A high-level Kuwaiti official predicted tonight that Iraq would "cool off" the tanker war to give the cease-fire initiative a chance to take hold.

One western diplomat said that if the land war between Iran and Iraq is not halted by U.N. attempts to impose a cease-fire and, later, an arms embargo against the belligerents, Kuwait will continue its financial and logistical support of Iraq.

"There is not going to be any daylight between Kuwait and Iraq" if Iran launches new land offensives and Iraq responds by reigniting the tanker war in the gulf and threatens the U.S. escort operation, the diplomat said.

Meanwhile, Kuwait's lightly armed military is maintaining "a fairly high state of alert" along its northern border, where western analysts fear that Iran might be tempted to risk crossing the Kuwaiti frontier to skirt Iraq's southern defenses.

Sabah said there was no resentment by the leaders of Kuwait over the U.S. delivery of arms to Iran. "We are friends, we have to trust each other. If we don't, how could we live?" he asked.

A western diplomat today said there is no evidence to suggest that Iran has deployed Silkworm missiles at launching sites that it has constructed overlooking the entrance to the gulf.

The official said western embassies, and particularly the United States, have taken as a very positive sign Saudi Arabia's decision to dispatch two of its four American-made mine sweepers to the waters off Kuwait that have been cleared by the mine-sweeping operation this month, which was assisted by the U.S.

Kuwaiti officials have determined that some of the mines cleared from the channel were of North Korean origin. A western official said the mines actually were Soviet-made mines that had been sold to North Korea.