JIDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA, NOV. 11 -- A war against Iraq should not end with the complete destruction of Baghdad's military capability because Iraq is the strongest Arab deterrent to Israel and Iran, many Saudis say.

This theme, and the concern it reflects about upsetting the regional balance of power, has come up more frequently in recent interviews with Saudi government officials and ordinary citizens who are pondering the long-term strategic and political repercussions of a Persian Gulf conflict.

Like the Bush administration in Washington, the Saudi government has not publicly spelled out exactly what its war aims would be, beyond liberating Kuwait.

"War has to be well-established, well-planned and {a decision made as} to what extent this war will be {executed}," said one Saudi official familiar with top-level government thinking. "Are we going to war to liberate Kuwait or to enter Baghdad? Until now, nobody has decided what the plan is."

There are several other factors that officials here say are being debated as the government prepares for a war. They include how hard and long the Iraqi army in Kuwait would fight after initial hostilities began; whether Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would follow through on his threat to attack Israel if war begans; and how dependable the United States would be as an ally if the conflict turned into a long one.

It is difficult to determine how deep the cleavages in these debates are, given the secretive nature of the Saudi government. But it is clear that with more time to think about going to war, more voices and opinions are being raised on these issues and others.

Saudi King Fahd will be the one ultimately to decide in this monarchy. "There are no hawks and doves here," one official said, nodding his head in the direction of the royal palace. "Only him."

The most difficult and important issue for the Saudis revolves around Iraq's future. Most Saudis want to see Saddam removed from power, and they are deeply concerned about the threat that Iraq's arsenal, including chemical and biological weapons, poses to their country. Privately, officials also say they will demand "guarantees" that Iraq will never again be able to threaten the kingdom or the other gulf countries.

At the same time, Saudis say they do not want to see another Arab country brought to its knees. Nor do they want the Arab world's military might decreased to the point that Israel and Iran would be tempted into military adventures.

"We are afraid that if all of Iraq's military equipment is annihilated, there will be a vacuum in the area," a Saudi diplomat said. "Who {then} will be the biggest power? Israel first, and second it will be Iran."

"Do we want to force Iraq out of Kuwait? Do we want to force out Saddam? Do we want to destroy Iraq?" asked Abdulaziz Fayez, a professor of political science in Riyadh, as he reflected on the aims of a potential conflict. "I think we will go for the first two, but I don't think most Saudis will go for the last, because we don't want to see a brotherly Arab country completely destroyed."

Concerns about how a war against Iraq might upset the balance of power in the Arab world are also felt in other Arab capitals. In Syria, the government-run al-Baath newspaper said Thursday that Syria does not want Iraq destroyed because Iraq gives the Arab nation "strategic depth," and its destruction would be "a great gain for the Israeli enemy."

Whether these sentiments will result in braking Western military action during a conflict is not yet clear. But so far, both Syria and Egypt -- which, after Saudi Arabia, have contributed the largest number of Arab forces to Operation Desert Shield -- have put limits on what their troops can do.

According to two Saudi officials, Egypt and Syria have agreed that in the event of a conflict, their ground troops would be allowed to enter Kuwait but not Iraq. Arab countries also have agreed to tactical bombing strikes inside Iraq by the Western powers but only for the purpose of cutting supply lines to Iraqi troops in Kuwait, these officials said.

The Saudis' attitude toward allied bombing attacks against Iraq is more problematic, since many of the planes that would carry out that mission are based on Saudi territory. What agreement, if any, has been worked out between the Americans and the Saudis on air strikes in Iraq is not known.

Some Arab experts question whether it would even be possible to calibrate a war carefully enough to remove Iraq as a military threat to its neighbors yet leave it powerful enough to retain a role in the regional power equation. U.S. military officials also are mulling this issue in their war planning, and some appear to share Saudi concerns about upsetting the regional power lines.

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. forces in the gulf, acknowledged that the "total destruction of Iraq" is an option but added, "I am not sure that is in the interest of the longterm balance of power in this region."

As for the well-dug-in Iraqi troops in Kuwait, there is no consensus here on how much resistance they would put up. Nor is there a unity of views on whether Saddam, faced with an allied attack, would launch missiles at Israel and thus draw it into retaliatory action, transforming the conflict into an Arab-Israeli one.

"He is saying his first rockets will go to Israel," one official said, expressing concern about that eventuality. "You can imagine if Israel reacts to an Iraqi attack. It will be a mess and nobody will understand {our position} if now they do not {even} understand why Saudi Arabia has asked the United States to come in."

Other officials, however, said they are less concerned about Saddam doing this because they believe he knows that an Israeli response would be disastrous for him. "I think the reason he is not going to do this is because {he} had doubts today that America will fight him {but} he knows 100 percent that the Israelis will respond, period. Hence, he doesn't take chances there," a senior Saudi official said recently.

For the Arab nations allied with the United States against Iraq, an Israeli strike is their worst nightmare because of the extreme sensitivity in the area to Israel's perceived expansionist aims. There has been no official indication, even in private, from the Saudis, Syrians or Egyptians about how they would react to such an Israeli move, suggesting they have no definite plans yet on how to respond.

Finally, while some Saudi officials confidently predict that a war would be over in two weeks, others say they are not so sure. If it does become a long conflict, one official said, "will America stay, or will it do what it did in Vietnam?"