WASHINGTON (AP) _ Dead white carnations adorn a desk beneath a larger-than-life picture of Saddam Hussein. Telephones rarely ring. Newspapers lie untouched.

At the Iraqi Embassy, an eerie silence pervades the anteroom that once bustled with diplomatic activity.

The three remaining Iraqi diplomats and an embassy accountant are virtually cut off from Baghdad, unable to communicate by telephone with the home office.

Since Feb. 9 - the day Iraq broke diplomatic relations with the United States - the diplomats have lived in limbo. They do not know if they will stay in the United States, and if they do, for how long.

''We don't know anything; we get the news from CNN,'' said Ahmad al-Kissiy, who works at the embassy.

The ocher-brick building about eight blocks from the White House is cordoned off with a yellow police rope and guarded by the Secret Service Uniformed Division.

Khalid Shewayish, the charge d'affairs and the top man at the embassy since the ambassador was recalled in January, often is not in the office and has not granted any in-depth interviews.

Shewayish has told State Department officials that ''he is getting no instructions'' from Iraq, according to a department spokeswoman who did not want to be identified.

The Iraqis have said they want to find another country to look after their property and their interests if all the diplomats leave the capital. Those interests include the welfare of Iraqi students and resident aliens.

Other countries that have no diplomatic relations with the United States have similar arrangements. For example, the Czechoslovakians have handled Cuba's interests and the Swiss take care of Iran's affairs.

If no one is found to take care of Iraq's interests, the State Department's foreign missions office would assume responsibility for the embassy building. It could rent the building out. Any Iraqis left in the United States would have to deal directly with the U.S. bureaucracy.

The United States has allowed the Iraqi diplomats to remain in Washington for the time being because ''there is not any good reason to toss them out,'' the State Department spokeswoman said.

The department withdrew its diplomats from Baghdad in mid-January before the allies began an intensive bombing campaign.

Despite the break in diplomatic relations, the United States has been in contact with Shewayish. Most recently, department officials summoned him a few days before the cease-fire in the Persian Gulf War.

The United States formally asked Shewayish to convey to his government the demand that Iraq release CBS television correspondent Bob Simon and three crewmen. The four were picked up along the Saudi-Kuwaiti border in January; they were freed by Iraq on Saturday after Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev made a personal appeal for their release.

Simon's wife also had been in touch with Shewayish, according to the State Department.

The rules of diplomacy are carefully spelled out in the 1961 Convention of Vienna.

''The procedure for severing diplomatic relations is a codified practice, in effect going back to relations in Italian city-states in the 17th century,'' said David Newsom, a former U.S. ambassador now with the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. The institute is affiliated with Georgetown University.

Newsom said that since World War II, the sanctity of diplomatic status has eroded. ''That's why we took our people out of Baghdad before diplomatic relations were broken off,'' he said.