DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES, AUG. 27 -- While images of naval-escorted convoys dominate the front pages and television news, dozens of ships are plying the waters of the Persian Gulf daily without military protection.

Almost seven years of warfare between Iran and Iraq has altered patterns of shipping in the vital waterway, sometimes drastically, but it has not stopped the tankers that carry much of the world's oil, or the freighters bringing goods for the gulf economies built on that oil trade.

For every tanker that comes in with an escort, six traverse the gulf's waters unescorted, according to an informal survey of shipping sources. Scores of freighters are in the same category each month, as are dhows and small coastal vessels numbering probably in the hundreds.

With the region's vast deserts making road traffic more difficult, the sea remains the main avenue of commerce for Arabian Peninsula countries and for coastal Iran as well, and that avenue is well used.

Records compiled by Lloyds Maritime Information Services in London show that 198 oil tankers brought cargoes out of the Strait of Hormuz in June, a figure similar to the monthly rate for the past several years.

From August 1984 to the end of 1985, for example, Lloyds said that the monthly number of outbound tanker trips ranged from 168 to 196.

What is different about much of this traffic is that Iran now is forced to shuttle much of its oil from war-torn Kharg Island to Siri or Larak islands in the southern gulf, far from normal Iraqi bombing patterns. There it is loaded onto other tankers for the trip to the eventual customer.

In addition, about 25 to 30 ships a month can be expected to travel under American, French or British naval protection, if the current pattern of U.S.-escorted traffic continues. The number is likely to increase, however, as Kuwait reflags or charters more ships.

A truce in the "tanker war" that has become part of the gulf conflict has coincided with, and perhaps contributed to, a sharp upswing in the amounts of oil being pumped by major gulf nations, including Iran and Kuwait. More oil means more tankers to carry it.

Members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries are believed to be pumping about 3 million barrels a day over OPEC's 16.6-million-barrel quota, with Iran and Kuwait together contributing more than one-third of the excess.

"The tanker-war truce, and the convoys, actually are helping Iran. They are earning a lot more money now," one diplomat remarked.

Kuwait also is witnessing a steady flow of tanker traffic in addition to escorted vessels.

"Traffic has never dropped off," said Capt. Tim Stafford of the Kuwait Oil Tanker Co. "There are probably 70 or 80 tankers a month coming here." Other sources said that at least one tanker a day reaches Kuwait's oil facilities.

"Nobody has stopped oil coming out of the gulf. They have only made it a bit more expensive, and a bit more costly in human life," said one shipping expert who has tracked the casualties -- material and human -- of the gulf war on shipping.

About 325 ships have been hit or trapped by aerial or ship attacks, mostly by Iraq, since the war began, according to shipping experts. Casualties have numbered 320, averaging less than one per ship, and that figure includes the 37 Americans killed when an Iraqi missile struck the USS Stark.

{Nizar Hamdoon, Iraq's ambassador to Washington, said in an interview that his country is likely to resume air attacks on Iranian ships unless the United Nations invokes sanctions against Iran for not accepting a cease-fire and peace negotiations, The New York Times reported Thursday.}

Similar comparisons for cargo traffic on large ships are not readily available, but a check of figures for the ports of Dubai, a major trading and shipping center, show a small but perceptible decline, reflecting another major shift in shipping patterns as a result of the war between Iran and Iraq.

While 2,888 ships called at Dubai's Port Rashid and Jebel Ali Port in 1986, there were 3,229 in 1983. At the same time, the number of dhows and small coastal boats jumped from 6,366 in 1984 to 10,088 in 1986.

It was around 1984 that Iraqi attacks on shipping in the gulf started the "tanker war" and insurance rates started soaring. Some shippers began to shift some of their freight unloading from ports inside the gulf to Fujayrah and Khor Fakkan outside it on the Gulf of Oman.

The first company to shift some or all traffic was American President Lines. Others that have followed include Ceylon Shipping, United Arab Shipping, Pakistan National Shipping Corp and the East German line.

While shipping sources in Khor Fakkan put the volume of freight going directly into gulf ports at 50 percent of the pre-1984 level, others say it is far higher.

Nevertheless, between 35 and 40 large vessels a month call at the Gulf of Oman ports, unload their cargo for overland shipment to Dubai, Sharjah and Ras al Khaymah, where it is loaded onto the smaller vessels for shipment to gulf destinations, including Iran. This, in part, would explain the large increase in coastal craft using Dubai ports.

"There are economic reasons for some of this shift," one shipping source said. "There is more container cargo now as ports have become more sophisticated. Also, the big construction boom of the 1970s is over. There no longer is a need for a lot of big ships to come straight into the gulf carrying construction materials or even entire plants."

One of the other "economic reasons" is insurance. War risk coverage for the hull for entry into the gulf adds 0.25 percent of the value of a ship to the cost of insurance. A trip to Kuwait adds another 0.25 percent. Applied to multimillion-dollar vessels, this becomes a substantial amount. Insurance coverage for travel to Kharg Island is said to be available on a "case by case" basis, but Iran is said to be handling all the traffic from Kharg in its own ships.

The continuing flow of vessels has led some gulf shipping sources to question the U.S. decision to commit dozens of warships to the region, sharply raising tensions.

"What has the U.S. achieved? There wouldn't have been mines if the U.S. hadn't said they were going to escort ships," said one shipping expert with long experience in the gulf.

"The British Navy has been escorting for years. In the whole war, only three British ships have been hit. There has been no confrontation. The Iranian Navy is professional and there has been mutual respect. The French Navy has been at it for 18 months and France also has had only three vessels hit."

{Pentagon officials said Thursday that the aircraft carrier USS Ranger and its six support ships have relieved the USS Constellation carrier group in the northern Arabian Sea, and that the USS Missouri battle group is en route to the gulf area.}