LONDON, SEPT. 21 -- After some hard-nosed lobbying by the United States, the United Nations subcommission on human rights last month overwhelmingly adopted a resolution condemning Iraq for repression. But two years ago, it was a very different story.

Then, despite the fact Iraq was conducting a poison gas campaign that killed at least 2,000 of its own Kurdish citizens, the subcommission voted down a mild proposal to study the human rights record of Saddam Hussein's government. The United States and its Western allies voted for the measure, but observers say they did little to help get it passed.

In fact, despite its record as one of the world's most repressive regimes, Saddam's government for years managed to evade censure in international forums purportedly established to defend human rights. Even after journalists and physicians confirmed firsthand the gassing of the Kurds, Iraq won vote after vote in U.N. bodies. It even avoided official condemnation at a 1989 international conference on chemical warfare in Paris called in response to its use of poison gas.

Iraq succeeded, critics say, in part by aggressive lobbying and by pulling the economic purse strings of Third World countries that voted its way time after time. It did so with the active assistance of its Arab allies -- especially Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, now among its most bitter foes. And it also benefited, these same critics contend, from the reluctance of the United States and other Western nations to press for condemnation of a country they saw as a bulwark against Iran and a potentially lucrative trading partner.

"There is no defending the slowness of the West in condemning Iraq once the use of chemical weapons was known," said Rosalyn Higgins, a British law professor who sits on the U.N. Human Rights Committee, a separate institution from the subcommission. "The long and short of it is politics and the West's perception of where its larger political and economic interests lie."

Saddam's government spent much effort and money to deny accusations of rights abuses and evade international censure. Yet it also occasionally revealed a deep contempt for the entire process. Earlier this year Saddam appointed as head of Iraq's U.N. mission in Geneva -- and therefore his official spokesman on human rights -- his half brother, Barzan Ibrahim Takriti, who once served as head of Iraq's internal security police. According to exiled Iraqi dissidents, Takriti was personally responsible for the killings of several prominent political prisoners.

Western defense sources believe Takriti used the Geneva mission as headquarters for Iraq's European intelligence network.

"How much more cynical can you be?" asked Ambassador Morris B. Abram, head of the U.S. mission to the United Nations in Geneva. "It shows their total contempt for the whole human rights program."

The 43-nation U.N. Commission on Human Rights and its 26-member subcommission of supposedly independent experts are among the world's foremost international rights forums. Yet over the years, critics say they have become highly politicized bodies where nations band together along economic and ideological lines. Perennial targets like South Africa, Israel, Chile and El Salvador are discussed and often condemned -- but adding new names to the list has been virtually impossible.

"Everyone at the commission protects their own, and everyone seeks to attack their enemies, and human rights has nothing to do with it," said Kenneth Roth, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in New York.

Iraq's record of repression was no secret to the commission. For years, Amnesty International documented widespread killings, arbitrary arrests, imprisonment and torture of political opponents by the regime. The latest U.S. State Department annual report on human rights practices calls Iraq's record "abysmal."

Each year in February, just before the commission met in Geneva, Amnesty would issue reports on Iraq's latest violations. In 1988 Amnesty reported that hundreds of political prisoners had been executed without charge or trial after secret military hearings. A year later, Amnesty published the names of 344 children and young people detained by the Iraqi authorities, most of whom had "disappeared" while in prison.

"School children have been apprehended, lined up and summarily shot in public," Amnesty reported. "They have been shot dead in demonstrations. Whole families, including children and infants, have been killed in large-scale military attacks by Iraqi troops on civilian targets."

But the commission did not have to take Amnesty's word. Its own officials had gathered volumes of disturbing material on Iraq. For example, the commission's working group on enforced or involuntary disappearances had by last January compiled 3,045 "disappearances" of Iraqi citizens, only 36 of whom had been accounted for by the government.

Nonetheless, when it came time to vote, Iraq always scraped by. In 1988, Iraq defeated a bland study resolution by 17 to 13 with 9 abstentions. The majority included six Islamic countries, Cuba, which needed Iraq's support to ward off resolutions on its own human rights record, plus India, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, each of which exported thousands of workers to Iraq. China, which was Iraq's third largest supplier of arms, and Brazil, another major weapons exporter, also voted with Baghdad. So did Botswana, Senegal and Sao Tome, African states that rely on Iraq for much of their oil. Subsequent votes in 1989 and earlier this year produced the same result.

"We thought chemical weapons was the kind of issue that would shock the conscience of the commission, but we were naive," said Reed Brody, an American lawyer with the International Commission of Jurists in Geneva. "Iraq had virtually everything going for it -- support from the Islamic countries, the socialist countries and the Third World. The vote was always political."

Observers say Iraq effectively lobbied to keep its coalition together and knew how to count noses. One year when Morocco's chief delegate was due to be absent from a key vote, recalled Sahib Hakim, an exiled Iraqi opposition member, the Iraqis persuaded the Moroccan government to send her back to Geneva on a special flight.

Hakim, who heads the London-based Organization of Human Rights in Iraq, said Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait often pressed Saddam's case, arguing that the war with Iran had inevitably led to abuses and vouching for Iraq's good intentions. They even succeeded in placing Iraq on a confidential list so that future human rights debates would not be held in public.

"We saw them work very hard for Iraq," Hakim said, "but they wouldn't even meet with us."

When the Iraqis weren't lobbying their friends, they were keeping close track of their foes. "There were always threats," Hakim said.

Last year, when it looked like the subcommission might adopt a resolution, the Iraqis issued invitations to members to visit the country. Later, after the resolution was defeated, Iraq rejected Western demands that the visit be conducted along approved U.N. guidelines allowing for complete access to alleged victims. Only four delegates made the trip.

The Iraqis used many other techniques for blunting accusations, such as issuing blanket denials and charging that unfounded allegations were part of an "international conspiracy" by their foes. As a last resort, Iraqi delegates occasionally would admit an abuse had occurred but claim it was an isolated incident that ran contrary to Iraqi law.

Finally, last year, Iraq announced it had established a section within its Foreign Ministry to deal with human rights and other issues. It was headed by Farooq Ziada, a Western-trained diplomat who observers say was smooth and articulate and skillfully positioned Iraq on the right side of most Third World issues before the United Nations.

"We didn't see much of Takriti but we saw a lot of Ziada," said one observer who asked not to be named. "He became the acceptable face of the regime."

Critics contend that U.S. policy on human rights consistently sent the wrong message to Iraq and to the international community. Although then-Secretary of State George P. Shultz strongly condemned Iraq's use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in September 1988, the Reagan administration continued its $500 million annual credit-guarantee program for the Iraqi purchase of agricultural products, and the following year the Bush administration doubled the amount.

U.S. Ambassador Abram, speaking in a telephone interview from Geneva, called the criticism "not fair," adding, "I will say I don't think the United States has always made human rights the sole basis for evaluation . . . but my view is we pushed hard on Iraq. You can't say we trimmed our sails when on page after page in the State Department's human rights report, we are on record condemning Iraq's policies."

But Middle East Watch, the New York-based rights group, contends the Bush administration never raised with Iraqi authorities its own findings of murder, extralegal detention, torture and disappearances.

"It is almost as though, having issued its annual report on Iraq, the administration considers its duty done and the matter dropped for the rest of the year," wrote David A. Korn, a former U.S. diplomat, in a recent report published by the group.

Congress also reacted slowly. A bill passed by both houses calling for economic sanctions against Iraq died in conference in October 1988. An amendment added the following year to the annual foreign-aid bill by Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) passed both houses after a rider was added allowing the president to waive the sanctions if he determined they were not in the "national interest." President Bush issued such a waiver earlier this year.

Human rights advocates fared no better at the special international conference on chemical weapons held in Paris in January 1989. Although the conference had been called by presidents Francois Mitterrand and Reagan after the gassing of the Kurds, both the United States and France strongly opposed moves to single out Iraq by name for censure, pressing instead for a general statement that condemned chemical warfare in principle and referred obliquely to both Iran and Iraq. Indeed, many Arab states defended Iraq's development of chemical weapons, arguing that Baghdad's arsenal was justified to counter Israel's cache of nuclear arms.

The French government barred Kurdish spokesmen from the conference, arguing that the ground rules specified only states could attend.

In the end, some critics believe, the international community's failure to act on human rights abuses helped convince Saddam that he could get away with almost anything and may have contributed to the invasion of Kuwait. Said law professor Higgins, "It is obvious, looking back at it, that Iraq must have concluded it could simply . . . do whatever it pleased."