Secretary of State James A. Baker III said yesterday the Bush administration has "only begun our thinking" on how to fashion a new regional security alliance in the Persian Gulf, and he backed off any suggestion that the United States is "calling for a NATO of the Middle East."

Baker's proposal Tuesday for a new security arrangement that would restrain the military power of Iraq and blunt any further expansionist ambitions of Saddam Hussein caught a number of government officials, foreign embassies and outside experts by surprise.

It touched off broad speculation and some criticism that the United States is seeking to erect a U.S.-dominated alliance in the Persian Gulf whose formation could put new strains on shaky Arab regimes and ignite a backlash of Arab nationalism.

A number of experts hailed the proposal as a laudable idea that could attract broad international support, but said it requires extensive preparation and consultation and many obstacles would have to be overcome.

One Arab minister from a Persian Gulf emirate who was interviewed yesterday said Arab governments are interested in discussing long-term security arrangements with the United States. This minister, who asked not to be identified, suggested that the United States might join the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Saudia Arabia, Kuwait and the smaller sheikdoms along the waterway, as a defensive security alliance.

He also said the U.S. Central Command should retain a permanent presence in the region under such an umbrella. "We cannot trust Iraq anymore," the minister said.

Some analysts pointed out that Baker's proposal was reminiscent of the Baghdad Pact, the failed Eisenhower administration effort in 1955 to build an American-led alliance among Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and Britain to resist Soviet influence in the region. Efforts to build that alliance were undermined by strong Arab rivalries, which still exist today, regional experts said.

Baker's remarks yesterday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee appeared to step back from his presentation Tuesday to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where he suggested that a U.S.-led regional alliance to encircle Iraq could be fashioned after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which was created by the western allies following World War II to contain Soviet expansionism.

One former U.S. ambassador in the Middle East said Baker's choice of the NATO comparison "was just a horrible bad idea" that evoked "awful memories of the late 1950s and the Baghdad Pact."

"To think of linking up with the various shaky kings and emirs in an American-led security arrangement would seem to guarantee that those guys would be toppled," the ambassador said. "Can you just see the street reaction?"

Clarifying his remarks in Senate testimony yesterday, Baker said, "Any such arrangement would have to fit regional realities. We have no particular model, such as NATO, in mind. I made the point yesterday that NATO had preserved the peace for 40 years against an aggressor who had nuclear weapons in Europe, but that should not be equated with the idea that somehow we are calling for a NATO of the Middle East."

Baker's testimony yesterday appeared to be an effort to preempt any criticism that the Bush administration is ignoring the role of the United Nations, the 22-member Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council in setting security goals for the region.

"This would in no way diminish our commitment to the United Nations' action or the role of the United Nations," Baker said. But should the U.N. embargo succeed in forcing the withdrawal of Iraq from Kuwait and the restoration of Kuwait's ousted ruling family, "it would be appropriate to consider some sort of a regional security structure that would guarantee peace and prosperity for the region," he said.

"I can't tell you today what role the United States might or might not play in any such structure," he added.

The U.S. proposal -- with Baker's subsequent clarifications -- reflects the sensitivity that is being attached to the first-time deployment of U.S. troops to Persian Gulf oil fields and to the long-range planning on how to continue their defense if Iraq pulls its forces back within its borders but remains a potent military threat to the region.

A sign of these sensitivities was the statement yesterday by King Fahd that the United States should seek U.N. approval before launching any offensive military operations against Iraq.

Saudi Arabia has pursued a close alliance with the United States, but members of its ruling family have long suspected that the U.S. military was maneuvering to get a permanent base on Saudi territory.

The Saudis have sought to balance their suspicions and their security concerns by keeping the U.S. military "over the horizon" while secretly building air bases, warehouses and other depots to accommodate a rapid deployment of U.S. forces in any military emergency that might be fomented by Iraq, Iran or the Soviet Union.

At the White House yesterday, spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, referring to Baker's testimony, said, "Obviously, it's a matter that the president is interested in pursuing internally. We do have discussions going on in the State Department as well as the NSC {National Security Council} about what some kind of security arrangement would look like, but there's not details at this time."

Fitzwater added that Baker felt "it was important to raise this matter and to generate the kind of discussion that would be required with Congress and others to begin thinking in terms of a new security alliance once we get down the road."

A senior European diplomat said yesterday the Baker idea is appealing in a general sense because many European leaders believe a way must be found to contain Saddam's ambitions and guard Persian Gulf oil fields but that the United Nations is probably the most appropriate venue to discuss security arrangements.

Former U.S. ambassador to Jordan Richard Viets suggested the best approach would be an "internationalization" of the effort to protect oil resources and to guarantee the stability of oil prices.

"Anything we do has to be Arab-led," Viets said. "We could perhaps leave training teams and small detachments of military forces, but to consider a long-term deployment of U.S. forces in the area I think is a non-starter unless one goes to some type of international forces."