Sen.-elect Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) used the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as a backdrop yesterday for a tearful plea against war in the Persian Gulf. The head of a national veterans group called the event unprecedented and inappropriate.

"This is not the time to rush to war," Wellstone said at a news conference in front of the memorial's black granite walls.

Wellstone, who protested the Vietnam War while in college during the 1960s, placed a bouquet of roses near the sculpted name of Bill W. Deetz, a Marine Corps captain from Northfield, Minn., Wellstone's home town, who was killed in action in 1968.

Wellstone had tears in his eyes as he and his wife, Sheila, embraced after making a pencil rubbing of the name. He said Congress should begin debate on the Persian Gulf after today's swearing-in ceremonies.

Referring to Vietnam, Wellstone said: "The worst kind of war is when the president and executive branch say to everyone in the country, 'This is a war we must wage because we have facts that you don't have.' "

Told later of the news conference, Mary Stout, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, said, "I wholeheartedly agree with statements that anybody considering going to war should go by the memorial, but that should be a private, personal thing. It's very inappropriate to use the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for any political purposes. I am personally very distressed that a member of Congress would do that."

"I've been cautioned in a friendly way by a number of people about coming and make such a strong statement," Wellstone said, "but I don't feel this is just another issue."

Pat Milan, a Wellstone aide, said the senator-elect wanted to see the memorial and didn't expect to be joined by two dozen reporters, photographers and camera operators.