In a confidential message from Washington in late July, just before the invasion of Kuwait, some American ambassadors were advised to tell their host governments the United States was increasingly worried about the threats to use military force by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, according to informed sources.

The State Department cable was sent the day before U.S. Ambassador April C. Glaspie voiced a more sympathetic and respectful message directly to Saddam on July 25, saying the United States wanted better relations with him, praising his efforts to rebuild Iraq and gently inquiring "in the spirit of friendship" about the massive Iraqi troop deployments to the south.

It is not known whether Glaspie saw the cable before her meeting with Saddam, which occurred on short notice. But the cable to the ambassadors and Glaspie's remarks to Saddam illustrate the often contradictory public and private signals emanating from the Bush administration before Iraq invaded Kuwait, touching off a global economic embargo and massive military buildup in the region.

According to informed policy-makers, the Bush administration in the weeks before the Aug. 2 invasion was gripped by inertia and indecision over whether to get tough on Saddam, and never quite came to a conclusion. A few senior officials wanted to sharpen the approach, and others insisted on continuing U.S. policy dating from the Reagan administration of trying to engage Saddam. Much of the internal debate centered on whether taking a firmer line against Saddam would work or backfire and increase his belligerence.

As evidence of Saddam's aggressive behavior mounted last spring and summer, there were numerous meetings and discussions in Washington about taking a harder line, but the basic approach of trying to work with Saddam was never changed. Officials could not agree on how to change it and senior policy-makers, including Secretary of State James A. Baker III, were distracted by other problems, such as German unification and U.S.-Soviet relations. Moreover, some moderate Arab leaders urged U.S. officials not to take a harsh line against Saddam.

In the wake of the invasion, which caught President Bush and other world leaders by surprise, there has been an intensifying debate over who miscalculated and why. Some members of Congress have charged that Glaspie's comments to Saddam -- and similar public statements by State Department officials in Washington just before the invasion -- may have inadvertently led Saddam to believe he could invade Kuwait without serious repercussions.

Both Bush and Baker have acknowledged that the effort to work with Saddam failed, but they have denounced as "ludicrous" any suggestion that the administration's approach contributed to the invasion.

Baker has criticized "some 20-20 hindsighting going on." The questions have been particularly sensitive for him; both career Foreign Service officers and his inner circle of advisers were involved in the inconclusive pre-invasion policy debate over Saddam. Baker has said he wants to avoid recriminations that would strain his already-troubled relations with the Foreign Service. At the same time, his own coterie of advisers did not consider it a top priority at the time to change the approach to Iraq.

In Baghdad, Glaspie told Saddam she had direct instructions from the president to seek better relations. Questioned about instructions sent to Glaspie, Baker said recently he would "not confirm the contents of diplomatic communications." At the same time, he said, "I'm not going to deny . . . what the policy was, but I'm going to say to you that there are probably 312,000 cables or so that go out under my name as secretary of state."

According to two informed sources, there was no instruction specifically from Baker to Glaspie on how to handle the July 25 Saddam meeting, in part because Glaspie, in the Iraqi capital, was summoned to the session on short notice and Baker, in Washington, was preparing for a lengthy visit to Asia.

Bush, in 1989, had approved a formal policy directive seeking better relations with Iraq. The State Department later expressed concern about Saddam's aggressive threats, but officials still sought to work with him, and the administration repeatedly opposed the harsher economic sanctions against Iraq Congress was considering.

The day before Glaspie met Saddam, a cable about Iraq was sent to American diplomats in allied countries. The cable included a set of "talking points" for diplomats to use when discussing Iraq with these allied governments. Officials said the cable was not intended as instructions to Glaspie, but a copy was routed to the embassy in Baghdad. It could not be learned who at the State Department wrote the cable.

The cable began by noting the State Department's public response to Saddam's ferocious rhetorical attack on Kuwait in his July 17 Revolution Day speech. The department had reiterated the United States' interest in preserving a free flow of oil in the gulf, defending freedom of navigation and supporting "the individual and collective self-defense of our friends."

The cable then encouraged U.S. diplomats to go further in their talk with other governments. Specifically, according to sources, it said they should represent that the United States was concerned about hostile Iraqi statements against its neighbors.

The cable said the United States would take no position on the border dispute between Iraq and Kuwait or other bilateral disputes.

The cable then said Saddam's threats of military force to resolve his complaints were contrary to the principles of the United Nations charter. The cable urged the diplomats to tell the other governments that the United States was disturbed that Saddam seemed ready to try military means to enforce his demands for higher oil prices.

The cable said the United States was trying to impress these points on Iraq through its ambassador in Washington and through Glaspie.

Glaspie's remarks to Saddam have been reported previously in a transcript made public by Iraq, the authenticity of which has not been challenged by the State Department. It shows Saddam delivered a long lecture to Glaspie, saying that "our patience is running out" with Kuwait, and accusing Kuwait of waging economic war against Iraq.

Glaspie's response, like the cable to the ambassadors, said the United States had no position on the border and bilateral disputes.

But in other respects, Glaspie struck a respectful and conciliatory tone, noting that the administration was opposing Congress's effort to impose economic sanctions against Iraq and apologizing for a critical Voice of America editorial against Iraq. Glaspie gently inquired about the troop movements but did not deliver any strong warnings about the consequences of military action.

In retrospect, senior U.S. officials have different explanations for Glaspie's remarks. Some believe Glaspie was reflecting the view of the State Department's Near East and South Asia bureau, and that of moderate Arab leaders, that Saddam could be engaged. "My honest sense is that this was a person trying to work with a client state," said a senior official. But others said they faulted Glaspie for praising Saddam too much and leaving the impression that the United States had only a benign interest in the situation.

Glaspie, who is in Washington, said in an interview with the New York Times recently that "I didn't think -- and nobody else did -- that the Iraqis were going to take all of Kuwait. Every Kuwaiti and Saudi, every analyst in the Western world, was wrong too. That does not excuse me. But people who now claim that all was clear were not heard from at the time."

There were other conflicting signals: Many farm state members of Congress wanted to continue selling commodities to Iraq; other nations, such as France and the Soviet Union, had been major arms suppliers. Moderate Arab leaders told Washington Saddam would not invade.

Policy-makers in Washington held numerous meetings on Iraq in the months before the invasion, wrestling with Saddam's increasingly disturbing behavior, including his quest for weapons of mass destruction, the execution of a British journalist, and his threat to use chemical weapons against Israel. Some efforts were made to show unhappiness with Iraq, such as a last-minute decision to halt export of furnaces that could be used in making nuclear weapons and a small aerial refueling exercise conducted with the United Arab Emirates further down the gulf in the days before the invasion.

But overall policy was slow to change. When Vice President Quayle proposed to make a speech last spring taking a hard line against Saddam, the National Security Council asked him to tone it down, according to informed officials. As late as July 31, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs John H. Kelly told Congress the administration still opposed economic sanctions.

"It is very hard to shift course unless you know what you want to do differently," said one senior official. Referring to Baker and Bush, the official added, "These are practical men. They want to know, 'What do you want to do?' To change this policy, you need to know what you were going to do about it, and how it would change things." Many policy-makers had no answer on this point, the official said, and still believe there was little they could have done to prevent the invasion: "I would like someone to explain any action that would have made a difference."

Staff researcher Ralph Gaillard Jr. contributed to this report.