Iraq's heavily conditioned offer to leave Kuwait was a signal of its deepening vulnerability after weeks of allied bombing, as well as a play for political advantage, informed administration officials, diplomats and analysts said yesterday.

While President Bush dismissed the statement as a "cruel hoax" raising false expectations and containing unacceptable demands, these officials and diplomats described it nonetheless as a significant development in the six-month crisis.

It was the first time since the invasion of Kuwait Aug. 2 that Iraq has recognized the validity of any of the United Nations resolutions and the first time it has agreed to withdraw, albeit with many conditions attached. Only days before the war began, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein told U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar that he could not even use the word "withdrawal." According to a transcript of their conversation subsequently published in Jordan, Saddam vowed, "I say if we are given the whole concessions that are in the world, no one will utter the word withdrawal when the Iraqi and American armies are face to face and war might erupt in a few hours."

He added that to use the word withdrawal then would be "creating the psychological conditions for enemy victory" over Iraq.

Yesterday, an administration official recalled how the allies have worried for months that Saddam would try to undermine their solidarity with just such a concession. "He's never had a military strategy," this official said. "He has a political and a psychological strategy, and this is part of it."

At the same time, administration officials said they were reacting cautiously and saw ambiguity in the motives for yesterday's statement. One senior U.S. policy-maker said Iraq may be seeking just to buy time, forestalling an allied ground offensive because of recent heavy losses, and perhaps winning a cease-fire. "He may see it as his ticket out," said this official, recalling Saddam's efforts to stall before the Jan. 15 U.N. deadline for withdrawal from Kuwait.

This official said it was not clear whether Iraq moved out of sheer desperation or is seeking to exploit a propaganda opportunity on the heels of this week's allied bombing attack that killed scores and perhaps hundreds of civilians in Baghdad. "It could be that {Saddam has} made a decision {that} he runs the risk of being forced out of Kuwait, so let's try to promote {sympathetic} attitudes on the outside and turn it into a cease-fire, and that will make it hard to resume" the bombing, this official said.

But, he added, the statement clearly suggests that Iraq has been weakened by the allied bombing, which U.S. officials have said has grown more lethally accurate in recent days. Earlier, officials said they believed that Saddam wanted to lure the coalition into a ground offensive, but after yesterday's statement, that conclusion was giving way to a sense that he now wants to forestall it.

"It shows less of an impulse on his part to see a ground war get underway," the senior policy-maker said. "He's not in a position to dictate the terms."

Other analysts suggested that Iraq is searching for a possible life preserver from abroad, particularly from Moscow. They described the statement as another salvo in Baghdad's effort to wage the war on political terms: to weaken the will of its foes, to appeal to Arab publics and to preserve whatever position Saddam may have left when the war comes to an end.

Once again, the United States and its allies sought to deny Iraq any of these advantages. The Iraqi statement was "dead on arrival" with the coalition, Bush declared, and the allied bombing did not pause. To reinforce the point that he was not interested in compromise, Bush called, in more blunt terms than he has recently, for the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam.

But the statement came amid other indications that Saddam has reached a new and critical phase in his confrontation with the coalition. He met in Baghdad this week with the Soviet envoy, Yevgeny Primakov, and subsequently announced that Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz would go to Moscow for meetings with the Soviet leadership, although officials said yesterday the envoy may not be Aziz but another diplomat.

While Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh yesterday reassured Secretary of State James A. Baker III that the Soviet Union found the Iraqi statement unacceptable, the Soviets nonetheless are eager to play a peace-making role in the crisis.

Vitaly Ignatenko, spokesman for Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, said the Kremlin took "satisfaction" in the statement from Baghdad and credited Primakov for the development. In contrast to the stern dismissal from Bush, he said, "I believe that here in Moscow, we attach more significance to what we hear, what we hear from Baghdad -- political decisions, a political solution, and this political solution is not only just a gleam of hope. . . . "

Several European and Middle Eastern diplomats said in interviews yesterday that the statement issued by Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council may have been a deliberate probe aimed at Moscow, to see whether Soviet officials would consider assuming the role of mediator, and perhaps endorsing a cease-fire.

"I don't think it's only a hoax," said a European diplomat, referring to Bush's statement. "It's a first probe; {Iraq} is trying to probe the Soviets, to divide the coalition. It may be an opening position. We have to wait and see."

Iraq's statement explicitly cited the Primakov visit as one reason for the offer.

The Iraqi statement repeated Saddam's earlier demands for linkage to other Middle East conflicts, in addition to a host of new demands, including that reparations be paid to Iraq after the war, that the wealthy countries of the region share more of their oil riches with the poorer nations, that the Persian Gulf be declared free of "foreign military bases," and that all the sanctions against Iraq imposed by the U.N. Security Council be canceled.

Bush scoffed at all the new conditions, but other analysts said they could well be just part of a bargaining process. Although the United States has said it cannot accept any linkage to other regional issues, much of the thrust of what Iraq is seeking probably will occur, in one way or another, if Saddam is defeated. The United States already has said it is prepared to work to resolve the Palestinian issue after the gulf crisis, to seek redistribution of the oil wealth, and to pull out all U.S. ground forces.

But Baker has said western aid for rebuilding Iraq will be hard to come by if Saddam remains in power.

Asraf Ghani, an associate professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University, said the Iraqi demands must be understood in the context of the terms in which Saddam has chosen to wage the war. The Iraqi president is trying to protect his political standing and transform his image from that of bully to victim, he said. "Saddam Hussein has been consistently playing the political chords, and in those terms his announcement makes perfect sense."