RAS HAYYAN, Bahrain (AP) _ Two dozen of the Gulf War's most unwitting victims, cormorants and grebes smothered in black oil from beak to tail, lay on the ground awaiting an autopsy.

Oil slicks released in late January killed at least 20,000 birds within days and perhaps three or four times that number in three months, said expert Yousef al-Wetaid.

Iraq intentionally pumped oil into the Persian Gulf during the war, and allied bombing raids also caused some spillage.

''It's really a disaster,'' said Wetaid, who is director of the bird recovery and rehabilitation center in Jubail, Saudi Arabia.

His volunteers have recovered about 1,300 live birds, of which nearly 500 have been released into the wild. Eighty are still being cared for. The rest died.

The two dozen sodden bird bodies were brought from Saudi Arabia to a Bahraini bird recovery center at Ras Hayyan so they could be used by volunteers learning how to do autopsies.

Doctors can devise more effective treatments if they know the precise cause of death.

The oil-affected birds often die not just because they are coated with oil, but as a result of swallowing the toxic chemicals.

American veterinarians who are training the volunteers pointed out the shriveled muscle tissue and contaminated stomachs of many of the dead birds.

Even those caught alive need intensive treatment. And most die despite the treatment.

''Some of them are all depressed, hunched over, not aware of what's going on,'' said Virginia Pierce, a pathologist who works for Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research Inc. of Wilmington, Del.

Some of the birds suffer from convulsions. Others have irregular heartbeats or are comatose. Some are so heavily contaminated that oil comes out in their droppings.

Oil also damages the natural waterproofing of the birds' feathers, destroying their ability to regulate body temperature and remain afloat, Ms. Pierce said.

If swallowed, its toxic components can invade the brain, liver, lungs and kidneys and kill the animal within days, she said.

Crude oil also weighs the birds down so they cannot fly to seek uncontaminated food. Many starve.

Even the process of being rescued and cleaned by humans is dangerous for the animals. They could die simply from stress, said Mary Jane Dalton, the supervisor of wildlife care at Tri-State. She urged volunteers to keep the handling of birds to a minimum and to speak softly and soothingly to them.

''Handling by humans is the most stressful, most terrifying experience for a wild animal,'' she said.

Ms. Dalton poked a plastic hose down a live duck's throat and fed it human baby cereal as a demonstration of how to keep sick birds alive. She also demonstrated intravenous feeding with a syringe.

Ms. Dalton warned the volunteers to be cautious of some birds that may lash out at rescuers.

''Cormorants are extremely aggressive and can be very dangerous to the handler,'' she told them. ''They have tremendous strength in their jaws, as anyone who's ever been bitten by one can attest.''

In the early days of the spill, about 70 to 100 birds were brought into the Jubail treatment center daily, but that figure soon dropped sharply and then fell to nearly zero.

Recently, about 10 to 15 birds have been brought in daily, said center director Wetaid. He wasn't sure why the numbers were increasing again.

The center has had the most success with the Socotra cormorant, of which 60 percent of world's stock live in this region. Of those brought in, about 70 percent survived, Wetaid said.

Survival rates for other birds can be much lower. Of 224 black-necked grebes recovered by the center, 208 died.

But, Wetaid said, ''every single bird we save counts. They are a global heritage, not just for us Saudis but for the whole world.''