LONDON, SEPT. 9 -- Call it the story of the 22 babies. What it illustrates is the difficulty of separating fact from fiction in the Persian Gulf crisis, and the way both the governments of Kuwait and Iraq and some of their allies have sought to manipulate public opinion to aid their cause.

The story began circulating last week when Abdul Wahab Fowzan, the Kuwaiti health minister-in-exile, said at a press conference in Taif, Saudi Arabia, that Iraqi soldiers had seized virtually all of the country's hospitals and medical institutions after their invasion Aug. 2. He said the soldiers evicted patients and systematically looted the hospitals of high-tech equipment, ambulances, drugs and plasma.

Patients had died as a result, Fowzan claimed, including premature babies who were being treated in incubators at the maternity ward of Al Adan hospital in Ruga, a northern suburb of Kuwait City. Fowzan later put the number of babies who died at 22, saying he got the figure from local health officials who had helped bury the infants.

The claims were repeated in a letter Friday to U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar by Kuwait's U.N. representative, Mohammad Abulhasani, who said all of the exposed babies had died. The letter pleaded with Perez de Cuellar to press Iraq to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to enter Kuwait and monitor the treatment of the population under Iraq's military occupation.

Because Iraq has sealed off access to the area and quarantined diplomats, no one could independently confirm the accusations. Other accounts indicate that at least some of the hospitals are still operating, although under strict Iraqi supervision.

"We've heard these stories," said a spokesman for the British Foreign Office. "But our people are confined to the embassy compound and we simply have no way to gather evidence one way or the other. We simply don't know the truth."

In the old-fashioned propaganda war being waged between Iraq and Kuwait, the suffering of children is an emotive and potentially powerful weapon. That suffering is invoked by Kuwaitis to illustrate the horror of occupation in an attempt to maintain international pressure on Iraq to withdraw, and by Iraqis to illustrate the cruelty of U.N.-mandated sanctions in an attempt to break them.

Thus, in his address to the Iraqi people Wednesday night, President Saddam Hussein claimed the embargo was starving Iraqi babies. "Children in Iraq are dying because of a foolish decision taken by certain people," he said. "The children of Iraq are dying because they are being deprived of their food and milk and medicine."

Iraq has presented no evidence to support this claim and none of the Western journalists allowed into the country recently has reported scenes of hunger or starvation, although there has been a shortage of infant formula reported in Baghdad.

Nonetheless, both China and Iran have since indicated that they may ship food and medicine to Iraq for humanitarian purposes. And today, in a joint statement issued after a one-day meeting in Helsinki, President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev stressed that the U.N. sanctions against Iraq do permit the importation of food "in humanitarian circumstances," with "special priority being given to meeting the needs of children."

The invasion and occupation of Kuwait has produced many such fragments of information, some of which have been accepted by the Western press and printed as true, while others have been dismissed. Few, if any, are confirmable by the same standards reporters would apply to stories back home.

Some accounts come from official sources. Last month, many newspapers reported the rape by an Iraqi soldier of a British Airways stewardess. It was described by a Kuwaiti hotel manager whose access to the press was arranged through the Kuwaiti Embassy here in London. The airline itself confirmed that an assault had occurred.

But last week, after a dozen stewardesses had returned from Kuwait with the first hostage release, British Airways backtracked, saying it was reexamining the matter. "We can't say for certain what happened," said a company spokesman. "We were certainly led to believe it was true at the time."

There are other accounts that are suspect as well and are treated with skepticism. For example, Kuwaiti resistance leaders have claimed to reporters in Saudi Arabia that they are killing up to 70 Iraqi soldiers per day inside Kuwait. Yet Caryle Murphy, a Washington Post reporter who was the only American journalist in Kuwait at the time of the invasion and who fled recently, said resistance leaders inside the country had freely admitted that they could not know how many soldiers they had killed or wounded in any given attack.

The Associated Press, reporting recently from Amman, Jordan, cited anonymous "Arab diplomats and security sources" as saying Syrian forces had killed dozens of pro-Iraqi demonstrators in what was described as the worst violence inside Syria since the crushing of Moslem fundamentalists in Hama in 1982.

Western diplomats said they cannot confirm the account, and many said they strongly doubt its veracity. Other reliable Arab sources here have contended that the report was a deliberate plant by a group of Palestinians seeking to discredit regimes opposed to the Iraqi invasion, including Syria's. Some State Department analysts have drawn a similar conclusion, according to a U.S. official.

Analysts said such stories thrive in part because the closed nature and police-state atmosphere of many Arab countries make it impossible for independent sources such as journalists, diplomats and human rights groups to monitor events. Facts in such societies are not neutral, but serve as weapons to be wielded by regimes and their opponents.

The Kuwaiti baby story originated with a letter from a senior Kuwaiti public health official that was smuggled out of the country by a European diplomat late last month, according to Hudah Bahar, an architect who received the letter here in London. It was supplemented by information gathered from fleeing Kuwaitis and other sources by Fawzia Sayegh, a Kuwaiti pediatrician living here.

The letter claimed that Iraqi soldiers ordered patients evicted from several hospitals and closed down critical units for treating cancer patients, dialysis patients and those suffering from diabetes. Bahar and Sayegh said the Iraqis hauled sophisticated equipment such as dialysis machines back to Baghdad, part of the haul of cash, gold, cars and jewelry that is said by Arab banking sources to exceed $2 billion. Among the equipment taken were the 22 infant incubator units, they said.

Sayegh said her sister-in-law was evicted from the cancer unit at Sabah hospital. She also cited the case of a 48-year-old man, Abdul Aziz Daher, who reportedly died of renal failure after allegedly being denied access to biweekly dialysis treatments, and the case of a man who died of heart failure after being evicted from the intensive-care unit.

Bahar said she knows of two other cases -- both women, one a dialysis patient, the other a seriously ill diabetic -- who died after being evicted from the hospital by the Iraqis.

Salwa Darwish, an Egyptian anesthetist who recently escaped overland from Kuwait, offered some confirmation of the Kuwaiti charges. She told the Independent newspaper here that Iraqi authorities evicted civilian patients from the Razi hospital in Kuwait City in mid-August to prepare for what they feared would be an all-out U.S. attack.

The situation has been exacerbated, witnesses said, by the exodus of hundreds, even thousands of foreign health workers, including doctors and nurses, leaving hospitals, nursing homes and child-care facilities desperately short of staff.

Still, at least a handful of hospitals remain open in Kuwait City. The wife of a U.S. Embassy employee who broke her hip was treated for a week at a local hospital recently, according to State Department officials. Washington Post reporter Murphy said she saw patients being treated at the Sabah medical complex -- now renamed for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein -- in the first days after the invasion.

Pediatrician Sayegh said the situation illustrates the ways Iraq has violated Geneva Convention rules governing military occupation and the need for an independent body to be allowed into Kuwait. But Iraq has insisted that Kuwait, now annexed by Saddam, is no longer occupied territory and not subject to the Geneva Convention.