AMMAN, JORDAN, AUG. 14 -- Jordan's King Hussein, a critical Arab conduit between Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the West, flew unexpectedly to Washington this afternoon following overnight crisis talks in Baghdad with the Iraqi leader.

The official Petra News Agency said the Jordanian monarch left Amman for discussions with President Bush and senior administration officials as part of "intensified efforts on Arab and international levels to contain the current crisis in the {Persian} Gulf."

Hussein flew to the Iraqi border late Monday and drove on to the Iraqi capital, where he conferred with Saddam for two hours as international pressure on Jordan to choke off Iraq's last trade route through the Jordanian port of Aqaba intensified.

The meeting was the first face-to-face contact between Hussein and Saddam in 10 days, after the Jordanian king's bid to wring a commitment for an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait foundered over strong Arab condemnation of the Aug. 2 Iraqi invasion of the oil-rich emirate. No details on the meeting were available here.

Jordanian television reported that Hussein received a letter from Saddam shortly before leaving Amman for Washington. At a news conference in Washington today, Bush said that when he talked with Hussein by telephone today, the king did not mention any letter.

Hussein contacted the leaders of Yemen, Tunisia, Sudan and the Palestine Liberation Organization before and after his trip to Iraq. The outcome of those discussions was not disclosed.

The visit to Washington, coming as warships of the United States and its allies patrolled the Persian Gulf and Red Sea to enforce economic sanctions imposed on Iraq and occupied Kuwait last week by the U.N. Security Council, were seen here as the crucial test of Hussein's statesmanship.

The king has expressed his country's willingness to honor the U.N. resolutions, but strict adherence to the world boycott would strangle Jordan's main sources of revenue: transit business through Aqaba on the Red Sea and exports to Iraq.

Crown Prince Hassan, who acts as regent in his brother's absence, told journalists today: "Jordan respects the U.N. mandate . . .but {sanctions} would bring our economy to a standstill. . . .Clearly, in terms of implementing sanctions, we just don't turn off the switch in our dealings with Iraq and Kuwait."

The foreign ministers of Italy, Ireland and Luxembourg, representing the European Community, are expected in the Jordanian capital Thursday for a visit described by senior officials here as essential for the maintenance of channels to the West and consultation over a compromise solution to Jordan's predicament in the application of the boycott.

Reliable sources here said Western compensation to Jordan for the loss of Iraq as a major export market and oil supplier is being considered.

{Bush said Tuesday in Washington that the United States might help Jordan economically if it "joined these other countries in fulfilling these obligations under the sanctions," Washington Post staff writer Patrick E. Tyler reported.}

Hassan and other Jordanian figures predicted that Jordan would suffer huge financial losses if it applies the sanctions to the letter. Worst-case estimates indicate Jordan could lose $800 million a year in remittances from expatriates working in Iraq, $500 million in exports to Iraq and 90 percent of its oil supply.

Shipping agencies in Aqaba today were beginning to feel the boycott's bite, as sources reported a 60 percent loss of business since last week. Obervers said today there were 16 ships in port, 11 of which had anchored in the last two weeks.

"The problem is that there are a lot of ships with goods for Jordan telexing us that they are afraid to come," said Talaat Sannaa, director of the Aqaba branch of the Qaawar shipping firm, who said Aqaba's capacity was 25 to 35 ships a day. He said that most cargo now being offloaded at Aqaba is rice and sugar.

Of 20 million tons of cargo handled annually in Aqaba and trucked overland, 45 to 50 percent goes to or comes from Iraq. At the height of the Iraq-Iran war, 70 percent of all loading and unloading activity involved Iraq.

"It is a disaster of an enormous magnitude," Sannaa said, and he warned that many of Aqaba's 5,000 workers will have to be laid off soon and that trucking companies and their drivers will suffer substantially.

Iraqi-registered trucks left Aqaba today laden with rice, wheat, sugar, cooking oil, electrical appliances, Japanese cars, metal pipes and aluminum storage tanks, but the goods had arrived at the port before the crisis, sources there said.

{In Jerusalem, meanwhile, an Israeli source told Washington Post correspondent Jackson Diehl that his country "will not stand idly by" if it sees that Iraq is using Aqaba to break the boycott. The Israeli port of Eilat is less than a mile from Aqaba, and Israeli naval forces could easily seal off the Jordanian port, sources said.}

King Hussein's chances of salvaging his strained links to the U.S. administration will hinge in large measure on his ability to persuade Saddam to reverse his annexation of Kuwait and reinstate its exiled ruling family, Western diplomats here said. "The fact that he has taken the initiative proves that he still sees himself as a viable player," said one diplomat.

Doubts linger, however, that those two objectives can be obtained through peaceful means or without a total blockade of Iraq, which would require Jordan's full cooperation.

Visiting U.S. Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-N.Y.) said Monday in Amman that there was little chance of forcing Saddam to pull his forces out of Kuwait without Jordanian cooperation in the boycott.

Though he has spoken plainly against foreign intervention in the Arab world in speeches to the Arab League and at home, Hussein will find himself torn between domestic political pressures and his country's traditional role as a trusted friend and ally of the West in the Middle East.

Although Hussein's reluctance to condemn Iraq has angered his longstanding Western allies, it has endeared him to the Palestinians who form the majority of Jordan's population and who are often critical of the monarch. Judging from recent pro-Saddam, anti-U.S. rallies in Jordan, many Palestinians now see in the Iraqi leader an expression of Arab strength and defiance. Many are exultant that he has brought new attention -- through an initiative announced Sunday that offered Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait in exchange for Israeli pullout from its occupied territories -- to unresolved Palestinian-Israeli issues that have been pushed to the periphery of world concern.

Key Jordanian ministers insist that Hussein never approved of the idea of an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. However, feeling that he had a central role as mediator, Hussein chose to "keep the door open" to all sides by not aligning himself openly against Iraq. His defense of the Iraqi leader as a "patriot" and his talk of redrawing Middle East boundaries to distribute the region's wealth more evenly won him the scorn of wealthy Arab moderates and cast him in a new light as an Arab nationalist.

Hussein underscored his commitment to Arab unity on Sunday when, in an emotional speech to Jordan's legislature, he symbolically offered to give up his crown and take up the warrior mantle of his great-grandfather Sherif Hussein, one of the Arab world's great heroes.

"I will be forever honored to be a soldier serving this nation. This is the history of my family and my circumstance. I plead with you as brothers: He who wants to honor me shall call me by my name, and he who wants to honor me more shall call me Sherif Hussein," the king said, invoking the memory of his Hashemite ancestor, the ruler, or sherif, of the Islamic holy city of Mecca in what is now Saudi Arabia.

Sherif Hussein led the successful 1916-17 Arab Revolt -- with help from the legendary British officer T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arbia -- against the Ottoman Empire, but he was later banished to Cyprus after refusing to abide by British colonial partition of the Arab world.

Jordanian Arabic-language newspapers have run several pages of advertisements in recent days picturing Hussein in bedouin headdress together with Saddam. The advertisements, congratulating the Jordanian monarch on his stand, were signed by heads of major local tribes, the unswerving mainstays of Hussein's support.

In Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, the state-controlled media continued its tirades against the United States folowing warnings by Washington and its British allies that their ships would intercept vessels defying the sanctions. An Iraqi newspaper today accused Washington of "flagrant piracy" and charged that it was using the U.N. resolution as a "cover to carry out hostile designs against Iraq."

An editorial in the daily al-Jumhouriya cautioned: "We know how to retaliate against the {United States}, foil its measures, break the blockade, make its troops feel the taste of death if they commit aggression against us and move the battlefield to an undesired or unexpected site."

Iraq has threatened to use suicide pilots to defend its waterways.

Jordan's only outlet to the sea has been a strategic trading center for centuries. The harbor was improved by the British during World War II and further modernized by Jordan after the war. Deep water facilities were opened in 1961.

More than 10 percent of Jordan's export earnings are derived from port dues. Principal exports are Jordanian phosphates. Principal imports are manufactured goods.

Iraq is Jordan's biggest trading partner. Iraqi trade at Aqaba, valued at $400 million in 1988, accounts for up to 70% of the port's activity.

Since 1983, Jordan has accepted crude oil in part-payment for exports to Iraq. Until the present crisis, about 50,000 barrels of Iraqi crude were exported from Aqaba daily.

Jordan has rebuilt the highway from Aqaba to Baghdad. The road has become a "land bridge" from the Iraqi capital to the sea.

SOURCES: The Washington Post; Reuter