WASHINGTON (AP) _ Western journalists striving to cover the war in Iraq are getting in the way of the U.S.-led forces by passing through the combat zone, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate maintains.

Assistant Minority Leader Alan Simpson of Wyoming, who once told Iraq's Saddam Hussein that his major problem was with ''arrogant'' Western reporters, also accused journalists Thursday of playing into the hands of Iraqi propagandists.

Noting that up to two dozen journalists are riding in convoys to Baghdad in attempts to cover the war firsthand, Simpson said ''we've got to protect them.''

But he also said that ''we can't spend our time trying to protect people who are there at the invitation of an enemy government.''

During a luncheon meeting with reporters Thursday, Simpson also lashed out at Cable News Network correspondent Peter Arnett.

''Peter Arnett is what we used to call in my day a sympathizer,'' he said. ''And he was active in the Vietnam War and he won a Pulitzer Prize largely because of his anti-government material. ... I called that sympathizers in my early day in the Second World War.''

In Atlanta, Ed Turner, executive vice president-news, said: ''CNN is fortunate to have on site, in the most difficult circumstances, a seasoned combat correspondent, Peter Arnett, who has been tested by time and in so practicing his craft received the highest honors journalism can bestow. Arnett and CNN are there so all our viewers can be there - as imperfect, restricted and dangerous as the conditions are.''

Arnett won a Pulitzer Prize in 1966 for his coverage of the Vietnam War for The Associated Press. He was in Baghdad when the war struck Jan. 17 and has remained there. He recently interviewed Saddam.

Simpson said U.S. military leaders and other allied officers shouldn't have to worry about hitting journalists who place themselves in a war zone.

''... This government is going to have to be very careful and very protective to be sure that they (the journalists) don't fall in harm's way. And I think that is a great distraction from what we're doing.''

''The only thing that will cause any problem in this entire conflict is, now there is an entire convoy of media people crossing the desert to get to Baghdad with their satellite dishes and all their antennas,'' Simpson said. ''And we've got to protect them. And who the hell, who has any imagination, knows what they're gonna feed us?''

''They're crossing, in their marvelous activities, to bring us the news of the day,'' Simpson added. ''And what in the hell do we think it's going to be?''

CNN is the only U.S. network allowed to remain in Baghdad since the Gulf War began last month. Iraq, in allowing European journalists in last week, also permitted CNN to send in five more staffers from Jordan to support Arnett.

CNN also was allowed to bring in via the Amman-Baghdad highway a portable satellite transmission unit on which Arnett has been allowed to broadcast live and do live interviews, subject to Iraqi censorship.