MOSCOW — Despite the Soviet Union's official support for the allied war against Iraq, thousands of Soviet citizens have sent letters to the Iraqi Embassy in Moscow offering to help Saddam Hussein. The letters are surprising only to those who base their opinion of Soviet attitudes on speeches at the U.N.
Heated discussions over Moscow's role in the gulf crisis touched off Eduard Shevardnadze's last battle before his resignation as foreign minister and continue to highlight the depth of ethnic and ideological splits dividing Soviet society.
The majority of letters obtained by this reporter and the Moscow-based magazine New Times from the Iraqi embassy are from Muslims. Their use of ''anti-infidel'' slogans and references to ethnic violence reflect the resurgence of religious passions in many areas of the Soviet Union.
''Be proud to carry the sacred banner of Islam, my Iraqi brothers,'' writes a Muslim youth from Dushanbe, the capital of Soviet Tadzhikistan. ''You are setting an example for all the Muslim world. As a Muslim, I'm ready to defend the sacred soil of Iraq against dirty infidels.'' Despite his young age, the writer emphasizes he's been combat-hardened by ethnic conflicts close to home. ''I'm 17, but I can handle a Kalashnikov rifle as well as any soldier -- I've had some practice. . . .''
Another Muslim writes to urge that a special bank account be opened for those who want to donate money to Iraq. Although he has a big family to support, he is ready to donate a major portion of his pay. Reso Ali Ajiyev, a Muslim and veteran of the Afghan war, writes that he recently returned from a visit with other vets to Baghdad. Accusing the Soviet press of ''painting Saddam Hussein black,'' he praises the Iraqi leader's political skills and ''sense of responsibility before the Iraqi people as well as all the peoples of the world.'' His resistance to the allied bombing, Mr. Ajiyev concludes, ''deserves respect.''
Other writers reflect similar ethnic nationalisms reawakened by Soviet reform policies. A 34-year-old Georgian from Tbilisi suggests that nothing would stop him from fighting Moscow itself. ''I cannot understand how Moscow could betray a friendship of 18 years with Iraq. But one can hardly expect decency from the Soviet leaders, who on April 9, 1989, ordered troops to open fire at a peaceful demonstration in Tbilisi, thus betraying their own people. Please enlist me in the Iraqi army -- this is my way of protesting against the April massacre.''
A Russian youth from Leningrad typifies the anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism expressed by many ethnic Russian writers. ''Please enlist me as a volunteer to the Iraqi army. I feel that the Soviet and Iraqi people have a common enemy -- the U.S. and Israel. . . . I won't spare my life in the crusade against American imperialism. After Grenada and Panama somebody has to stop the U.S.''
A 33-year-old retired petty officer from Novocherkassk in the Soviet Caucasus, also an Afghan vet, is even more outspoken ''You [Iraqis] are the only just force in the Middle East. With my two years of Afghan experience, I'm ready to fight against American imperialism and Israeli Zionism.''
Some in Moscow fear that these sentiments will be used by the ''gray cardinals'' of the Kremlin for their own foreign-policy objectives. They are officials within the Soviet military-industrial complex who are now among the ''peace doves'' opposing any Soviet participation in the military offensive in the gulf. Their aim is widely viewed as favoring regimes like that of Mr. Hussein which once were major importers of Soviet arms.
Lev Yelin, of the editorial staff of the Moscow-based New Times magazine, wrote this article for Pacific News Service.