Several Democratic leaders of Congress yesterday sharply criticized President Bush's decision last week to nearly double U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, accusing him of rushing the nation down the path of war without clear justification to the American public or reciprocal commitments from allied Arab nations.

Differing somewhat in their points and degree of criticism, the Democratic leaders -- key committee and subcommittee chairmen and the Senate majority leader -- united in warning Bush not to commit U.S. troops to hostilities without first seeking the congressional approval necessary to broaden public consensus for war in a faraway land.

"The last thing we need is to have a war over there, a bloody war, and have American boys being sent and brought back in body bags and yet not have the American people behind them," Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) said on CBS's "Face the Nation," in a reference to the Vietnam War.

"We've gone that route one time," said Nunn. "We don't want to do it again."

Meanwhile, King Hassan II of Morocco called on Arab leaders to convene a "last-chance" summit conference to head off war, urging them to get off the sidelines while the region's fate is determined by Bush. {Details on Page A24.}

In the gulf, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, whose Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait led to the U.S. troop deployment, told a British television interviewer that he is ready for "deep dialogue" on Middle Eastern security issues as long as it includes the Palestinian question. But Saddam expressed no willingness to withdraw from Kuwait as the United Nations has demanded.

Yesterday's congressional criticism of Bush was the strongest since he ordered the deployment of 200,000 more troops in the gulf region last Thursday, adding to the 230,000 already there. Bush said he ordered the additional forces to ensure an "offensive military option."

Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, faulted the president for failing to consult with Congress or to seek backing from the United Nations before augmenting what is supposed to be a multinational force with so many U.S. soldiers.

Comparing Bush's action to policies of the old British empire, Pell "This could easily turn into a war of the Arab nations versus the United States."

-- Sen. Claiborne Pell, chairman, Foreign Relations Committee

said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that "we don't wish to be the sole policeman in that part of the world. . . . I'm not sure the American people want to take on that responsibility at this time."

Nunn said the new troop deployment shifted the mission of U.S. forces from its original purpose of deterring Iraqi aggression in Saudi Arabia to preparing for the liberation of Kuwait.

"I think the president has a real obligation here . . . to explain why liberating Kuwait is in our vital interest, that is, an interest so important we're willing to spend thousands of American lives if necessary," Nunn said. "That's a different mission and raises a host of questions."

"I think getting bogged down in a ground war there is the last thing we want, and plays right into Saddam Hussein's hands and makes our logistics difficulties, which are already present, much more difficult," Nunn said.

He questioned why Bush has to "rush this thing," instead of allowing the economic embargo imposed by the United Nations to have an impact on Iraq. "War should be the last option," said Nunn.

Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Middle East subcommittee, said Bush's failure to clearly explain why last week's deployment is in the national interest has left Americans "very, very uneasy about the prospect for war in the gulf."

Although the president spoke of the need to stop aggression, Hamilton said, "we do not stop aggression everywhere in the world."

"What he has not done . . . is to spell out for us the economic interests that are involved, or to put it in a single word -- oil and the importance of that to our economy and the dangers to it if Saddam Hussein gets control or can greatly influence the supply of oil," Hamilton said on "Meet the Press."

Pell and Nunn stressed the dangers of increasing the U.S. commitment while Arab members of the coalition arrayed against Iraq stand by. According to Nunn: "America is part of this force but we shouldn't be the only part of it, and if we are the main force there, almost the only force, it could become the West versus Islam very quickly."

Said Pell: "This could easily turn into a war of the Arab nations versus the United States."

The issue of congressional authorization was raised earlier this month after Secretary of State James A. Baker III said at a congressional hearing that while Bush is committed to extensive consultations with Congress, he could not be restricted by a requirement that he get approval from congressional leaders before using force.

Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) said that although the president has authority to deploy forces and respond militarily to attacks on U.S. interests and citizens, he is bound by the Constitution to get congressional approval for a declaration of war.

Speaking on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley," Mitchell said he is frequently asked, " 'Isn't that inconvenient for the president?' My answer is, 'Of course, it is. The Constitution imposes a great many inconveniences on those in power in this country.' "

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.), who supported Bush's decision to increase troop strength in the gulf, said that a decision to go to war should be made by formal vote of Congress, not just an informal consultation between the president and congressional leaders.

If the administration plans to seek U.N. support for military action, he said, "How can you not, then, ask for a formal vote of the Congress . . . to go to war."

Nevertheless, both Aspin and Mitchell ruled out the need to reconvene Congress, which adjourned late last month.

"I think Congress does not have very useful debates about hypothetical situations," said Aspin.