In the absence of hostilities, both sides in the Persian Gulf crisis have intensified their fight for diplomatic advantage, as Iraqi President Saddam Hussein seeks to undermine the international coalition while the United States struggles to hold it together, according to diplomats and Bush administration officials.

Senior U.S. officials had expected that a protracted standoff would lead to more aggressive Iraqi efforts to woo nations away from the multinational force by making attractive offers to free their hostages.

As the global economic sanctions begin to bite, policy-makers said they believe Saddam could also try to open a "bazaar" of negotiations, perhaps with appealing offers to strike a deal, directed primarily at Arab members of the alliance.

"The probing has begun," a senior U.S. official said. "He's flailing around a lot. He's trying to see if he can get by with the hostages," to postpone any military action for as long as possible and exhaust the patience of the alliance for any combat over Kuwait.

So far, the official said, there have not been any major new offers from Saddam for a negotiated settlement. But, he said, that could come in the next few weeks, posing yet another threat to the cohesion of the alliance.

In a further effort to preserve unity of the coalition, President Bush telephoned King Fahd of Saudi Arabia yesterday, a senior Arab diplomatic source said. Bush discussed a possible visit to the region soon by Secretary of State James A. Baker III and later next month by the president, the source said.

Bush also thanked Fahd for a statement the king issued this week seeking to ease concerns about a comment by the Saudi defense minister that seemed to suggest a possible land swap arrangement, with Iraq retaining part of Kuwait, would be sufficient to end the confrontation.

Fahd said the kingdom remains committed to an unconditional withdrawal by Iraq and restoration of the legitimate government of Kuwait, and called for measures to guarantee "the nonrepetition of the Iraqi ruler's aggression on any other Arab gulf state."

The Arab diplomatic source said Saddam could undermine the alliance if he announced his intention to pull out of Kuwait now, and avoided conflict or further punishment while retaining his weapons of mass destruction.

"We would not find two people to vote with us to continue the sanctions" and press for the other demands of the international community, said the diplomatic source, calling this scenario "our worst nightmare."

Baker told House members in a closed session this week that Saddam has sent word to some countries who have nationals trapped in Iraq that they could be freed if high-level emissaries were sent to Baghdad, according to Armed Services Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.). He quoted Baker as reporting that such overtures were made to Canada and Germany, that "some people ought to come visit and have pictures taken and he will release hostages from that country," Aspin said. Baker also emphasized how seriously Bush takes his responsibility to protect American citizens abroad.

Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney said in an NBC television interview yesterday morning that Canada had told Saddam to "buzz off."

Germany apparently had a similar response.

Saddam's largest gesture has been this week's offer to release more than 300 French hostages -- as soon as Friday, according to diplomats in Baghdad. France has denied engaging in any negotiations to win their freedom, which Iraq has said was in gratitude for President Francois Mitterrand's address to the United Nations last month.

The Arab diplomatic source said there is concern by other members of the alliance that France continues to be a "weak link" in the coalition.

In a telephone call yesterday to Joseph C. Wilson IV, the U.S. deputy chief of mission in Baghdad, Baker denounced what he called the "shameless shopping of hostages" by Saddam.

"Our concern is that Saddam not be able to feel the pressure is loosening up. It's a question of refocusing Saddam's mind, refocusing attention on Kuwait," a State Department official said.

Several administration officials and diplomatic sources said that Yevgeny Primakov, a top adviser to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev who recently visited Saddam and is shortly to return to Iraq, had delivered a tough message telling Saddam that he was completely isolated. But Primakov received no signals from Saddam that he was ready to capitulate, the source said, despite comments by the Soviet that he was "optimistic."

The United States and other members of the U.N. Security Council began discussions yesterday of a new resolution seeking to resupply the besieged American embassy in Kuwait.

This is the first in a planned series of resolutions aimed at building pressure on Iraq, which will include measures seeking restitution for damage to Kuwait and pressing war crimes prosecution against Iraq, officials said.

The diplomatic source said another possibility would be to seek Security Council approval for a resolution seeking to guarantee that Saddam does not use weapons of mass destruction in the future. Iraq has the Third World's largest stockpile of chemical weapons and has been seeking nuclear arms. However, a U.S. official said there has been only informal talk about this idea so far.

Administration policy-makers said they are pursuing a strategy of trying to make Saddam realize that he will be destroyed if he does not give in.

Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said, "My sense is that this president is very prepared to make a definitive decision on intervention, but by the same token he recognizes that, as important as the decision itself, is the timing of such a decision. He is very willing to provide Saddam Hussein a reasonable chance to reconsider."