Americans have grown accustomed to spectacular video footage of laser-guided bombs scoring bull's-eyes on bridges, military facilities and other Iraqi targets. Yesterday, for the first time, they saw one miss.

In an unusual move, British military officials released video scenes of cross-hairs lined up on a bridge, followed by a bomb veering wildly off to the right -- apparently into a populated area of the Iraqi town of Fallujah.

The British decision to show the errant bombing run -- and the elaborate explanation of the technical malfunction that apparently caused the bomb to go astray -- demonstrated the extent to which "collateral damage" has moved to the center of the propaganda battle between allied leaders and Iraq.

As Iraq seeks to stir international opposition to the war by publicizing civilian casualties, allied officials are emphasizing their efforts to avoid them. The British military briefer called the incident in Fallujah last week "extremely unusual" and said pilots had gone to great lengths to target their bombs away from civilian areas.

Iraqi authorities, who promptly arranged a tour of the damaged town for Western reporters, claimed the attack had killed 130 people.

U.S. officials, for their part, are responding with allegations of their own, such as new charges of Iraqi atrocities in Kuwait, while denouncing what they describe as a seamy public relations effort on the part of Baghdad authorities.

Interviewed on CNN yesterday, Secretary of State James A. Baker III noted that Iraqi authorities have not permitted reporters to view damage to military targets, escorting them only to scenes of civilian destruction.

"And so there really is an imbalance in the reporting," Baker said. "We are not blaming the journalists for that imbalance; it is imposed upon you, but it does tend to distort the reporting that is coming out of there."

Baker said he did not object to the presence of Western reporters in Bagdhad, but cautioned that "those reports ought to make it extraordinarily clear the very, very significant degree of censorship that is imposed."

President Bush, speaking with reporters yesterday on a beach near his home in Kennebunkport, Maine, said he had been told by the emir of Kuwait about a recent incident in which "200 young people, 15 to 20, boys and girls {had been} mutilated and . . . killed. So we mourn for the innocent, and I've been mourning for the innocents in Kuwait since that invasion in August."

The president's remarks followed last week's bombing of a building in Baghdad that apparently contained several hundred civilians, whose charred remains were subsequently photographed by Western journalists escorted to the scene by Iraqi authorities.

So far, the effects of Iraq's strategy appear to have been limited. Over the weekend, Indian Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar withdrew refueling rights granted last year to U.S. transport planes ferrying supplies between the Philippines and the Persian Gulf, but U.S. officials said the move was militarily insignificant.

Still, television's instantaneous transmission of civilian suffering poses a challenge to the Bush administration as it seeks to maintain a unified international coalition against Iraq. Some commentators have suggested that the United States may have exacerbated the problem early in the war by releasing videotapes that play up the accuracy of its weaponry, creating a false expectation that civilian casualties could be completely avoided.

U.S. officials have maintained throughout the Persian Gulf War that they are going to extraordinary lengths to preserve innocent lives, while acknowledging that in any war, some civilian deaths are inevitable. Even by Iraq's estimates, the number of civilian casualties appears to have been remarkably low given the tens of thousands of sorties flown by allied aircraft since the conflict began Jan. 17.

Some defenders of the administration's Persian Gulf policy suggest that the whole issue of civilian casualties has been overblown.

Appearing yesterday on NBC News's "Meet the Press," Sen. Richard Lugar (Ind.), a senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said of last week's civilian deaths in Baghdad, "The preoccupation with this bunker amazes me. We're involved in a war involving hundreds of thousands of people. Thousands already killed by the Iraqis. Obviously this is a propaganda ploy, a public relations situation."

Some U.S. officials have suggested Iraq is faking some of the destruction in a play for international sympathy. Those officials said they had evidence that a mosque near Basra was dismantled in an attempt to simulate bomb damage. In the case of the destroyed bunker, described by the Pentagon as a military communication center, U.S. officials have accused Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein of deliberately placing civilians in harm's way.

Certainty about the assertions of either side has been difficult to come by, but there is no getting around the fact that bombs sometimes go astray and that civilians sometimes pay the price.

That appears to have been the case last week in Fallujah. According to Royal Air Force Group Capt. Niall Irving, pilots directed lasers at a bridge adjacent to the town, creating a cone-shaped "basket" of reflected energy with the target at its tip. The bombs were supposed to ride the basket down to the bridge, and in fact several scored "direct hits," Irving said.

But three of the bombs "didn't guide for one reason or another," with two falling short into the river and one veering "off towards the town," Irving said.

Irving said that because the target was in a populated area, pilots had taken extra care to aim their bombs at the center of the bridge, rather than the ends as is normally the case. In addition, he said, the pilots flew straight down the river, "so that if the bombs {didn't} glide in their normal trajectory they {would} either fall short or long, and, one would hope, safely."

Film taken by the attacking aircraft shows a puff of smoke in what apparently is a "populated area" of Fallujah, Irving said.