WASHINGTON -- The most serious Scud attack against Israel to date came last night as the Bush administration asked King Hussein of Jordan to show restraint on the sidelines of the Persian Gulf war.
The White House condemned the attack against Israel in which three people died, the victims of heart attacks, as a "brutal act of terror" as the administration remained in steady contact with Israeli officials through a high-level envoy, Lawrence S. Eagleburger.
Earlier yesterday, the White House disclosed that Richard Armitage, a former assistant defense secretary in the Reagan administration, had been dispatched over the weekend for talks with Jordan's King Hussein. He was to return last night.
"The latest Iraqi missile attack on Israel is a continued example of Iraq's unprovoked aggression against its neighbors," the White House said in a statement after the Scuds claimed their first fatalities in the Persian Gulf war.
"We condemn this brutal act of terror against innocent victims, which has caused a number of casualties. Israel has shown remarkable restraint in the face of this aggression. We continue to consult with the government of Israel, and will continue doing so as events unfold."
The latest missile attack raised in much sharper relief the dilemma facing the Israeli government, caught between U.S. pressure not to retaliate and domestic political pressure. Israel's ambassador to Washington, Zalman Shoval, said his country's Cabinet would decide today.
Extensive consultations last week between the United States and Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria, the key Arab members of the anti-Iraq military coalition, showed that the coalition would remain intact even if Israel acted in self-defense, provided it did so within reasonable limits.
Israeli and U.S. officials also have said that action by the Jewish state, once decided on, would be coordinated with the United States.
But the possible reaction of Jordan to any Israeli overflight, if it chose to retaliate against Iraq, remained a crucial question mark. King Hussein has said Jordan would try to block any violation of its airspace by Israeli aircraft, threatening to widen the conflict further if a retaliation occurred.
Without saying that Israeli retaliation would be discussed with King Hussein, an administration official said that just as the United States has urged restraint on Israel in response to Scud attacks, it also sought restraint from Jordan.
The official said Mr. Armitage would seek to make sure that Jordan didn't "get carried away" in its rhetoric or actions.
Officials said the special envoy also would discuss the refugee problem confronting the monarchy.
Friday, Mr. Bush made a warm gesture toward Jordan, voicing hope of a return to good relations once the gulf war had ended.
Meanwhile yesterday, the White House opened up the possibility that it may refuse to accept a postwar scenario that left Saddam Hussein's regime in power. Asked if the United States could achieve its goal of stability in the Persian Gulf region if Mr. Hussein remained in power, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater noted that "when the war is over, the U.N., and the coalition and others will have to take a look at the situation and decide if other additional measures need to be taken to provide stability."