HEMPSTEAD, N.Y., NOV. 16 -- Former president Jimmy Carter today assailed President Bush's recent decision to increase the U.S. troop deployment in the Persian Gulf and called for negotiations with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to avoid a "massive, self-destructive, almost suicidal war."

"If we do launch an attack . . . we will reap great and very serious deleterious consequences politically," Carter said. "I don't think the Arab world will ever forgive the massive death that will occur by American weapons against Arab people."

The economic consequence of war, Carter said, also would be serious, because destruction of oil facilities "could very well increase the price of oil" to $75 to $80 a barrel -- more than twice the current price and five times the price before Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2.

In another warning to Bush, Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in Washington that the president must seek congressional approval of any offensive action in the Persian Gulf, because "the people are not going to take any single man's judgment" that the United States should go to war.

Carter said he would not oppose a deal that would give Iraq one of the Kuwaiti islands in the Persian Gulf, perhaps through a lease arrangement, in exchange for Iraq's withdrawal from the rest of Kuwait. The United Nations has called for complete and unconditional Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.

Carter spoke at Hofstra University during two "town meetings" with students and Long Island residents. The encounters were organized in conjunction with a scholarly conference on the Carter presidency.

Carter's anti-war comments, among the strongest to date by any Democrat, were in response to questions. He freely and repeatedly ripped into the president's decision to increase the U.S. troop commitments. His calls to avoid war were consistently met with loud applause.

The former president, who suffered himself from another crisis in the region when Americans were taken hostage in Iran in 1979, said he strongly supported Bush's initial moves against Iraq. He said he still favors economic sanctions and the commitment to Saudi Arabia.

"President Bush handled this crisis extremely well, I think almost with perfection, in the first stages," Carter said, praising Bush's success in winning "global condemnation of Iraq's invasion" and the involvement of the United Nations.

But in what he called "carefully orchestrated" moves over the last two weeks, Carter said the administration has transformed the nature of its commitment. "We are not planning now a defensive deployment of U.S. forces," he said. "We are now planning an offensive operation." Carter also scored Bush's public rhetoric, which he said made negotiations more difficult.

He said Bush puts himself in a "very difficult position to reverse" when he "says that Saddam Hussein is worse than Adolf Hitler or when he says that there will be no negotiations with Saddam Hussein until after he totally capitulates."

Carter said it would be especially hard for Bush to reverse himself because of his current domestic political difficulties. "President Bush has been damaged politically lately," Carter said, "because he got the reputation of being very wishy-washy on the budget and taxation."

Until recently, Carter's public comments about Bush have been generally positive. Carter has frequently compared Bush favorably to President Ronald Reagan, who defeated Carter in 1980 and about whom Carter often speaks disdainfully. But Carter complained today that Bush has neither consulted with him nor briefed him about the current crisis in the Persian Gulf.

"I have not received one word of briefing from the White House or the State Department since the Iraqi invasion took place, which I think is not a proper way to treat a former president," he said. Carter said that, by contrast, when he was in the White House he would "habitually, maybe even excessively," brief his predecessors, Gerald Ford and Richard M. Nixon, on major foreign policy events.

One of Carter's greatest prides is his success in Middle East diplomacy when he brokered the agreement between Israel and Egypt at the Camp David talks. Carter has written widely on the Middle East and has published a book on Middle East diplomacy.

In a lengthy breakfast meeting with reporters in Washington, Aspin said that while President Bush needs approval from the U.N. Security Council to win public support for a war, congressional approval "is not optional."

Asked what would happen if Bush ordered U.S. troops into combat to counter a provocative act by Iraq, Aspin replied that the provocation had "better be real, better not be manipulated" and must stand "up to scrutiny."

Aspin projected the growing concern that has surfaced among a number of lawmakers since Bush announced last week that he is sharply increasing the U.S. military commitment in the gulf to about 400,000 troops over the next few months.

By failing to consult Congress before the big increase was announced, Bush generated "a mini-firestorm of concern" fanned by administration statements indicating the plan to rotate troops in and out of the gulf had been scrapped. Despite Pentagon insistence that the decision against rotating troops has not been made, Aspin said the damage already has been done because a "significant number of people" are now convinced Bush intends to go to war soon rather than keep troops milling in place for the 18 to 24 months it might take for the embargo against Iraq to bite.

"They've got to come up with a rotation policy," Aspin said of the administration, to satisfy those "major figures who are interested in waiting 18 months or two years" before going to war. "If {waiting} 18 months to two years is a bad idea, somebody has to come in and make that case."

Staff writer George C. Wilson in Washington and special correspondent Stacie Bright in Hempstead contributed to this report.