The allied bombing attack that killed scores of Iraqi civilians yesterday, and the graphic television images of the disaster beamed around the globe, dramatically underscored the political risks in President Bush's decision to prolong the air war against Iraq, according to high-ranking administration officials and analysts.

By continuing the bombardment for a few weeks, Bush may avoid costly U.S. ground casualties. But he faces new questions about the purpose of the bombing and the larger military aims of the alliance, and runs the risk that the bombardment itself will become the issue, distracting from the occupation of Kuwait. Bush also runs the risk of giving Iraqi President Saddam Hussein a new opportunity to sow discontent with Arab and European publics and to undermine the strong American public support for the war through the selective use of television images, according to the officials and analysts.

While the United States and its allies are prosecuting the military conflict with bombs and rockets, Saddam appears to be playing for political advantage with the searing images of the bombing victims, many of them women and children.

This effort was clearly on the minds of administration officials yesterday and they rushed to respond. Saddam "will try and exploit this to build pressure on us to stop the bombing," said one senior policy-maker. "His war is a combination of propaganda and episodic use of Scuds and trying to save his air force. He's using propaganda and digging in. He hopes he can get an unconditional cease-fire. If he can't get that, he hopes to impose high casualties in a way that will weaken our will."

So far, without a ground war, Saddam has not been able to inflict those casualties on the alliance. After the attack yesterday, the administration sought to defend its conduct of the air war and turn responsibility for the deaths and destruction back on Saddam.

"He time and again has shown a willingness to sacrifice civilian lives and property that further his war aims," said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney accused Saddam of parking his combat aircraft near an ancient pyramid to save them and blurring the lines between military and civilian targets.

According to administration officials, with the exception of some complaints from Moscow, the United States so far has not felt any pressure from its coalition partners to alter the conduct of the air war. Some allies, such as France, have explicitly expressed support for the air bombardment, hopeful that the punishment will so weaken the Iraqi troops that the inevitable ground conflict will be quicker and less dangerous. Both France and Britain, however, have conditioned their logistical support for European-based U.S. aircraft used in the operation on assurances that civilian populations and religious shrines would not be intentionally targeted.

In addition, the officials said, by postponing the ground war, Bush avoids any erosion in what has become overwhelming public support at home for the war. Polls show that Americans are motivated to support the war in part by their clear perception of Saddam as a villain, and by the international nature of the alliance.

Robert Worcester, a British pollster, said public opinion there remains solid as well because of Great Britain's historical ties to the region, its professional military tradition and its experience in the Falklands War. Elsewhere in Europe, however, support for the war "is much less solid," he added. "If what we heard today is confirmed, that scores or hundreds of people were in the shelter and were killed, there will be a very substantial reaction" in other European nations, he said.

In Washington, policy-makers said they recognize that the visible civilian casualties in Iraq will pose inevitable political problems for the alliance, particularly among Arab and European publics.

"Generally, since the war began, Arab populist and Islamic populist attitudes have not been with us," said Hermann Eilts, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Saudi Arabia who is now chairman of the Center for International Relations at Boston University. "A lot of people who would not for a moment want to live under Saddam Hussein are unhappy with what we are doing. This will heighten it."

Eilts said the United States needs to pay attention to managing this impact of the war. "American casualties will affect American public attitudes, but the air war affects the attitudes of Arabs and Muslims," he said. "The very intensity of the bombing is something which the Arab world, which has been in wars before, has never experienced before. There is this amorphous sense of Arab brotherhood, that people who are fellow Arabs are being killed, all these things coming together and it is outsiders doing it."

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, said the visual images of the bombing victims were a significant advantage for Saddam. "We now have international communication that is instantaneous and is visual," she said. Regardless of censorship and whether the site was a military target or civilian bomb shelter, the images themselves are credible, she added, and in this case what the world saw were the victims.

"Today's images are putting into a channel something that has an evidentiary value to us that is far more immediate and more compelling than any words," Jamieson said. "Bush doesn't control those images. The nature of dropping bombs and missiles is such that of course there are going to be civilian casualties. Any process that continues the bombing gives Saddam Hussein . . . the image advantage. It also raises the question of what is the stated objective -- is the U.S. intent on destroying Iraq, or freeing Kuwait?"

Jamieson predicted that the images of the attack would reverberate in American public opinion as well, just as pictures of Vietnamese children fleeing napalm had an effect during the Vietnam War. "It was a brilliant propaganda move," she said. " You can't find anybody who favors warring against women and children. You can't get a public to accept that notion."

Last night, in another sign of the Bush administration's sensitivity about criticism of the gulf war, the United States and its allies blocked an open debate in the U.N. Security Council, and insisted on a private session instead.

In choosing a prolonged aerial war, Bush may also face new questions about his military aims and whether the bombing serves those goals. The administration repeatedly has said its objective is the liberation of Kuwait. But in carrying out the war, the military appears also to have attempted to accomplish another goal: the severe weakening of Iraq's military.

At first, allied warplanes attacked targets deep inside Iraq such as nuclear, chemical and biological weapons facilities. Then they began systematically striking ground forces. Although U.S. officials have said they do not want to destroy the country, bombs have been aimed as well at public structures such as bridges, and this week hit local government buildings.

Cheney acknowledged in a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce yesterday that the first four weeks of war, largely waged from the air, had done permanent damage to Iraq's military power, and the country would need outside help to recover from the damage to its infrastructure.

"We have eliminated a very significant portion of {Saddam's} offensive military capability," Cheney said. "He's got an air force that's totally ineffective today, we've destroyed his capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction . . . ." In addition, Cheney said, after the war, "there's going to be a great deal of work that has to be done" by Iraq to rebuild facilities such as electrical power grids and oil refineries.