The Bush administration is planning a series of diplomatic initiatives, including new U.N. resolutions designed to pressure Iraq, in an effort to refocus international attention on the campaign against Saddam Hussein while delaying a decision on whether to initiate a military offensive, officials said.

President Bush and his senior policy advisers believe that even a war of short duration would be highly costly in terms of American casualties and that political support at home could be rapidly depleted, the officials said. Although many allied nations are urging a decision soon about whether to go on the offensive, senior policymakers said that without provocation from Saddam, the president does not want to be rushed into a choice about the war option.

"We've gone beyond all the bluster and bluff that we'll just go beat Iraq into the dust," said a State Department official. "You have men who think of war and death and casualties and the human factor. Nobody is rushing to draw the gun. If they were, they are not now."

But the officials acknowledged that they face mounting difficulty in keeping together the international anti-Iraq coalition, especially as other events, such as last week's bloody clash between Israeli police and Palestinian demonstrators in Jerusalem, divert attention.

The subsequent four-day U.N. Security Council debate over a resolution condemning Israel was enormously frustrating for senior administration officials, who feared that it could erode the global campaign against Saddam.

The next step is expected to be a proposed resolution condemning Iraq's destruction of Kuwait and calling for reparations for the damage done since the Aug. 2 invasion, as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has urged. Bush said last week that his patience is "wearing thin" at reports of the dismantling of Kuwait and the torture and killing of its people.

"We will go back to the Security Council soon," said a senior administration official.

The latest thinking among Bush's top advisers is to try to demonstrate to Saddam that his room for maneuver is "shrinking," as several of them put it in separate interviews. The reparations measure would be an effort to convince him that the costs of remaining in Kuwait will be higher the longer he remains. For several weeks, the Justice Department also has had under study a possible resolution condemning Iraq for war crimes.

A further tactic would be to keep the U.S. forces in place and the threat of war hanging over Saddam indefinitely, without going on the offensive unless provoked. One official said this "containment" option would have the effect at least of weakening Saddam's military force in Iraq and Kuwait, because of lack of vital supplies from the outside. This official emphasized that such an option "is not a repudiation of force" as a possibility, but only a means of buying time.

"We can contain him where he is now without losing a life," said the official. "But containment doesn't get him out of Kuwait."

How long this campaign against Saddam can go on, while 200,000 American troops are deployed in the gulf, remains uncertain even to the highest-ranking decision-makers. They said they see some evidence that the global economic embargo is hurting Iraq, but they do not know how much.

Diplomats in Iraq report some food and medicine shortages, James Rupert of the Washington Post Foreign Service reported from Baghdad. But the diplomats noted that the population is used to making sacrifices, and the regime can compel them. "The collapse is going to come in systems and infrastructure," a Western diplomat in Baghdad said, referring to Iraq's oil refineries and water and power systems, each of which relies on imported parts and skilled foreign technical help.

In Washington, U.S. officials said they are watching closely for signs that Saddam is feeling the pressure; in particular they believe that at some point he may start to propose new diplomatic initiatives to splinter the coalition arrayed against him. "If the coalition holds together, and we move toward war, then he starts to throw more things out," said a participant in the internal administration discussions. "He will try to test the strength" of the alliance. "He will try to delay the military option. He will seek half a loaf, maybe. But he hasn't done much of it yet."

"We don't have a decision point," said this official of the choices facing Bush. "The passage of time helps us in terms of sanctions. But it hurts us with the rape of Kuwait and diversions. No one wants to rush to war. But we're not coming closer to our objectives, either. You're right to read some ambiguity into it. We are constantly taking the temperature."

At some point, the official said, "There will need to be a collective coming to judgment that the current approach is or is not going to work."

British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd said Thursday that such a judgment will have to come soon, and other participants in the multinational force have also been pressing for a decision, officials said. "There are a lot of people out there who want to hold our coat" while American forces bear the brunt of an attack, said another senior official, adding that this included both Arab and European allies in the gulf.

But this official and others said there is administration consensus that the costs of war could be extraordinarily high. This official said he does not believe there is any way that an armed conflict initiated by the United States could be "surgical" or "clean," even with the use of high-technology weapons and air power. "This is not Panama," he said, recalling the relatively few casualties from the Bush administration's only major combat initiative. (According to the U.S. Southern Command, 23 U.S. troops were killed in the invasion and aftermath, as were 314 Panamanian soldiers and 202 Panamanian civilians.)

This official also worried about the political costs at home of sustained combat in the gulf. "We fought a war in Korea and ended up losing the support of the American people," he said. Although polls show Americans are generally willing to use military force against Saddam before the fact, administration officials worry about the political consequences of thousands of combat deaths, and are loath to begin a war that does not enjoy support at home.

Tom McNaugher, a specialist on military affairs and the Persian Gulf at the Brookings Institution, said: "Given the vulnerabilities of Iraq's force posture, there may be clever ways to do this that save American and Arab lives, but no one can count on that. The president can't go to war unless he's willing to say there will be thousands of American casualties. Nobody has a good model." McNaugher said he found some of the estimates of 30,000 to 40,000 casualties "exaggerated," but "several thousand wounded, a couple of thousand dead" is realistic.

"The other thing about war is what it doesn't do -- I don't know how you can use force to get rid of Saddam," he said. "I don't think {fired Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael J.} Dugan was right that we can bomb him out of his bunker. You can lower his chemical weapons investment, but you can't eliminate it. You can do damage to his nuclear program, but you can't eliminate it. Much depends on how you limit the objectives here. If the ground operation is aimed solely at seizing and holding Kuwait, there is a reasonable chance at containing it in time and space. If we go further, it's a much more difficult problem.

"The final cost of war is that it sets a ripple going that's very unpredictable. Even a small one confined to Kuwait could destabilize Jordan," McNaugher said. "There are a lot of costs measured beyond casualties and money. It's not the surgical clean-cut solution to this problem that people who want it say it is."

But, he added, the administration must eventually make a decision about which way to go; the multinational force "is too big to be left there forever."