UNITED NATIONS -- For two weeks, presidents, prime ministers and lesser dignitaries gathered for the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly have been haunted by what many seem to fear is an inexorable movement toward war in the Persian Gulf.

Among the 28 heads of state, 15 prime ministers and 72 foreign ministers attending the session, no one has said he wants war. In formal speeches, corridor conversations and interviews, they repeatedly underscore their hope that Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait can be rolled back without bloodshed.

But they also acknowledge that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's continued defiance of international pressures has diminished that hope. Although everyone agrees that U.N. economic sanctions should be given more time to work, there is an almost fatalistic sense here that Saddam will not back down and that, within weeks, the U.S.-fostered multinational force deployed in Saudi Arabia will have to engage him in what could be a bloody conflict.

"It's very hard at the beginning of October to construct a clear scenario about what will happen in X weeks' time," the foreign minister of a major West European country said on condition he not be identified. "But between now and Christmas -- if not sooner -- President Bush, together with his chief advisers and his principal allies, will need to take stock.

"It may be that the decision will be to let things run as they are for a while. But if the stock taking concludes that peaceful measures are not effective, it will be necessary to consider very seriously what Bush calls 'further measures.' "

The sense of impending hostilities was not dispelled by Bush's Oct. 1 speech to the assembly, in which he toned down his rhetorical attacks on Saddam and emphasized his hope for a diplomatic solution.

As a senior U.S. official said: "He was speaking to the United Nations, whose members hope for a peaceful solution, so that was what he emphasized. But he in no way backtracked from the U.S. demands that Iraq must withdraw unconditionally from Kuwait, restore the legitimate government there and release all the foreign nationals it is holding hostage."

Surprisingly, for an organization in which bitter divisions among members have often stymied responses to world crises, almost every dignitary who has spoken this year has made the same demands.

Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze lashed out at Iraq, a long-time ally and client of Moscow, with unexpected harshness. Aggressors, he said, must be reminded that "the United Nations has the power to 'suppress acts of aggression.' There is ample evidence that this right can be exercised. It will be, if the illegal occupation of Kuwait continues."

His words were regarded here as a warning to Saddam that Moscow will not block military action against Iraq if he continues to defy U.N. calls for him to leave Kuwait peacefully. The limits of Moscow's patience with Saddam are not known, but diplomatic sources here say they expect the recent visit to Baghdad of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's special envoy, Yevgeny Primakov, to produce a clearer idea of whether Saddam will make some gesture toward negotiation.

The sense of many diplomats here is that he will not, an impression now shared even by Arab states that originally sympathized with Iraq or sought to stay neutral. Yemen, the Security Council's only Arab country, had voted against or abstained on almost every resolution aimed at Iraq. But on Sept. 25, Yemen voted with other council members to enforce an air embargo on Iraq and Kuwait.

Similarly, the foreign ministers of Tunisia and Algeria -- which refused to join an Arab League condemnation of Iraq -- reportedly told Secretary of State James A. Baker III they did so not from sympathy for Saddam but to keep lines open to Baghdad in hopes of influencing future Iraqi actions. However, they are said to have added that they have been unable to make Saddam understand the magnitude of the forces arrayed against him or the international community's determination to reverse his aggression.

The European foreign minister, who asked to remain unnamed, summarized it this way:

"Inevitably, as the threat of war becomes more real, there will be compromise mongers in all countries -- in the United States and in Europe. But I don't think those governments that have stood up and demanded that Iraq's aggression be reversed can compromise on the three main conditions the Security Council has laid down: unconditional withdrawal, restoration of Kuwait's sovereignity and release of the hostages. Letting Saddam get away with a couple of Kuwaiti islands and oil fields in his pocket is not possible if there is to be any credibility to the post-Cold War order now emerging in the world."

The Soviets insist that if force is used, any military action must be under a coordinated U.N. command. The United States prefers that each participating country control its own forces under a loose U.N. umbrella.

U.S. and other diplomatic sources insist that there has been no detailed discussion of military options within the United Nations while it waits to see if the sanctions will be effective.

However, as the European foreign minister noted, the longer the situation drags on, the greater the possibility of something happening that makes war inevitable.

"It's very questionable that Saddam Hussein can put himself in the position of a bedraggled dictator limping home with his tail between his legs and survive," the minister said.

He ticked off the situation of the hostages and the "systematic eradication of Kuwait's identity" as limiting factors.

"That is why I -- and many of my colleagues -- believe that by Christmas, Bush will have {to decide if} it's time to ratchet up from nonmilitary to military steps."