TAIF, SAUDI ARABIA, SEPT. 7 -- Officials of the exiled Kuwaiti government here indicate that they believe a long-term U.S. military presence in Kuwait may be necessary and desirable as part of a "new arrangement" to ensure a credible security deterrent to Iraq.

Although none have said as much publicly, these officials have answered questions about a future American presence in a liberated Kuwait in a way that leaves little doubt that they believe the only likely way to counter Iraq in the future is with direct U.S. involvement.

When asked whether a U.S. presence might have prevented Iraq from invading Kuwait Aug. 2 and occupying the country, Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sabah Ahmed Sabah said today, "One learns from the past and learns about it for the future."

"We are for any kind of new arrangement that could be agreed upon for our security," said Fahed Abdullah Hassawe, one of the two Kuwaiti government ministers traveling with Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who visited the ousted Kuwaiti ruling family today at this mountain resort, where a Kuwaiti government in exile has been set up. Such an arrangement, Hassawe said, "could be an American force."

Another member of the Sabah family, which had ruled Kuwait for more than a century until the Iraqi invasion, was more outspoken in a private discussion with several reporters later.

He said he still remembered how the U.S. ambassador had repeatedly asked the Kuwaiti Foreign Ministry for direct access to Kuwaiti facilities in 1987-88, when American warships were providing protection from Iranian attack for Kuwaiti tankers. The answer from the Kuwaiti government, he said, was always "no."

"I don't care if people call me a Zionist and anti-Arab. This {Iraqi occupation} would never have happened if U.S. soldiers had been there," he said.

Privately, senior Kuwaiti officials said they do not want to express openly their interest in a permanent American presence in Kuwait because they fear Iraqi President Saddam Hussein will use their remarks to whip up Arab sentiment against the U.S.-led multinational force massing in Saudi Arabia to counter Iraqi ambitions.

But they said that they realize the United States has become indispensable not only to oust Iraqi troops from their country but to create a long-term deterrent to possible future Iraqi aggression.

Kuwait and the other five Arab states belonging to the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) began preliminary discussions here Thursday about ways to strengthen their political and military alliance in the wake of Iraq's invasion and Baker's call for a stronger regional security pact.

The GCC, set up a decade ago, is a loose alliance of conservative Arab states in the Persian Gulf -- Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Oman -- which have been striving for closer economic, political and military cooperation.

The six have a joint 4,500-man standing force called "Peninsula Shield," with reserves on call, which should have gone into action to help protect Kuwait. But, like the tiny Kuwaiti army, it was not even on alert when Iraq invaded.

The GCC secretary general, Abdullah Bishara, has recently reacted to the Iraqi challenge by calling for an expanded GCC military force, a U.N. or Arab peace-keeping presence on the Kuwaiti-Iraqi border and international guarantees for Kuwait's independence. But just how all these steps might fit in a coherent new security arrangement remains unclear.

Bishara said today in a telephone interview from his GCC office in Riyadh that the foreign ministers had decided it was too early to try to formulate a new plan because of uncertainty about the current crisis.

Bishara, who is a Kuwaiti, said they are thinking about a new security relationship involving a militarily stronger GCC buttressed by other Arab states now providing troops to the multinational force in Saudi Arabia, such as Egypt and Syria, and backed by the United States and other Western powers.

"But it's nebulous. It's too early to talk," he said.

But perhaps more important is not what the Arab gulf states are saying but what they are doing. All of Kuwait's GCC partners are busy opening their airfields, ports and military facilities to U.S., British and French forces in a way never seen before.

"This is the first time the Arab gulf people are welcoming such a presence," Said Yaha Sumait, another Kuwait government minister briefing reporters here today.

Bishara said an American presence might still not be necessary if "the resolve" of the United States to intervene to protect Kuwait were made clear to Iraq in the current crisis.