The United States, which has now amassed 200,000 troops in the Saudi Arabia region, this week launched a simulated assault by 13,000 Marines on the beaches of Oman and moved the aircraft carrier USS Independence into the Persian Gulf, Defense Department officials said yesterday.

The Marine training exercise in Oman, at the southeastern tip of the Arabian peninsula, includes 90 aircraft and 18 amphibious and naval ships, officials said. Most of the Marines in the exercise will be stationed on ships off the coast of Kuwait in the event they are needed for an attack.

In other gulf-related developments yesterday, Secretary of State James A. Baker III told a news conference in New York that President Bush's speech Monday to the U.N. General Assembly calling for a peaceful settlement of the crisis did not mark a sudden change of direction in U.S. policy.

"I think it's a case of looking too hard for signals," Baker said. "One day I read that we're heading rapidly for war. The next day I read we're moving toward a diplomatic solution.

"The truth is, as the president and others have said many times, that the United States would prefer strongly a peaceful solution. But we can't exclude other options. It would be remiss to do so."

Iraqi Ambassador Mohamed Mashat said Bush's U.N. speech "has some subtleties that have to be studied."

"At least it has pointed out the need for a political settlement, a peaceful settlement" to the Persian Gulf crisis, Mashat said outside the State Department, where he had been summoned to hear a U.S. demand that Baghdad withdraw from Kuwait and release Americans being detained by the Iraqi government in Kuwait and Iraq.

"For us, always we wanted a political settlement, always we wanted a dialogue, always we wanted to resolve the problem through negotiation," Reuter reported Mashat said. "We should avoid by all means armed conflict because it's going to be a catastrophe for everyone."

But when asked if Iraq would withdraw from Kuwait, he turned away from the cameras, Reuter reported.

In New York, Italian Foreign Minister Gianni De Michelis said the European Community will provide almost $2 billion in aid to Egypt, Jordan and Turkey as compensation for economic hardships stemming from the Persian Gulf crisis.

Turkey lost substantial revenue from the shutdown of an Iraqi oil pipeline through its territory, Jordan is burdened by an influx of refugees, and Egypt has the cost of keeping troops in Saudi Arabia to deter an Iraqi attack.

In addition, ministers from 35 nations attending a meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe condemned Iraq's invasion and occupation of Kuwait.

The Marine and naval exercise off Oman, code-named "Camel Sand," began Monday. The Navy's SEAL (sea-air-land) special forces units are also participating in the exercise.

Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said yesterday the exercise is "not a political message any more than to say that we have a force and we want to keep it ready."

Some senior U.S. military commanders say they believe the military situation in the region is increasingly ominous, raising the likelihood of combat with Iraq.

Williams said U.S. reporters are not being allowed to cover the ongoing Marine amphibious exercise because the host country opposed media coverage. Williams declined to comment on reports confirmed by other Pentagon officials that the host nation is Oman.

The USS Independence and several ships in its battle group will remain in the gulf for "a short period to conduct normal operations," the Pentagon said. The Navy has not sent a carrier into the relatively small, congested and confined body of water since 1974.

The United States now has 54 naval vessels operating in the Persian Gulf, northern Arabian Sea and Red Sea, including two aircraft carrier groups, the battleship USS Wisconsin and four recently arrived mine countermeasures ships, officials said. In addition, the USS Saratoga carrier group is steaming in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

Defense Department officials said that about 200,000 U.S. military personnel are in the gulf region and another 50,000 troops are scheduled to arrive over the next few weeks.

Officials said 7,400 military women are among the 200,000 U.S. troops in the region.

Staff writer John M. Goshko in New York contributed to this report.