WASHINGTON -- President Bush ordered a huge increase of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf yesterday to give him the ability to launch an offensive against Iraq if it fails to withdraw from Kuwait.
The new forces could bring total U.S. troop levels in the region to more than 400,000 and, with the allied forces already deployed there, well exceed the number of Iraqi troops currently dug in in Kuwait and southern Iraq.
The president said the additional strength ought to persuade Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that he was up against "a foe that he can't possibly manage militarily."
"I'm convinced that this move will show him how serious we are as a significant partner in this coalition," Mr. Bush said at a news conference. "And let's hope he comes to his senses and does tomorrow that which he should have done weeks ago, because this aggression simply will not stand."
He said unchecked aggression "could lead to some horrible world conflagration tomorrow."
The planned increase in forces, which Mr. Bush would only describe as "substantial," had been confirmed previously by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney.
But yesterday was the first time Mr. Bush explicitly shifted the U.S. military mission from one of deterrence against further Iraqi aggression and enforcement of U.N. sanctions to potential offensive action.
"I have today directed the secretary of defense to increase the size of U.S. forces committed to Desert Shield to ensure that the coalition has an adequate offensive military option should that be necessary to achieve our common goals," Mr. Bush said.
He did so after being assured by Secretary of State James A. Baker III, from Moscow, that "we are still very much in accord" with the Soviets, who in the past have sent mixed signals on their willingness to endorse the use of force.
Mr. Bush indicated that he planned to seek authorization for the use of force from the U.N. Security Council and that he knew of no country among the permanent five members that would block it.
Although the United States and Britain insist such approval isn't legally required, the president said, "We've been great believers in going to the United Nations. And I think one of the major successes has been the ability to have world opinion totally on our side because of U.N. action."
The president again refused to set a deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. He did not take issue with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's warning Wednesday that Mr. Hussein faced defeat if he did not withdraw "soon."
But neither did he dispute Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's assertion, in an interview, that sanctions should be given two to three months more to work.
"I hope the sanctions will work within a two-month period," Mr. Bush said. "But I don't think we've got a difference with Egypt on this at all. "I think we're giving these sanctions time to work. We're giving world opinion time to mobilize, and impress on him that . . . we're serious . . . but now we're moving up our forces."
Government experts say it will be next spring at the earliest before sanctions take such a toll on Iraq as to bring internal political pressure to bear on Mr. Hussein to withdraw.
It will take at least until early in the new year to complete the new deployment, or probably until after the congressional recess.
Representative Lee H. Hamilton, D-Ind., who chairs a congressional subcommittee on the Middle East, said in a telephone interview yesterday that returning members of Congress would reflect constituent opinion. He himself, although he supported the buildup, encountered "unease and skepticism" among the public, he said.
Mr. Bush again hinted strongly that he would order the resupply of the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait even if U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, following up on a resolution, failed to get Iraq to allow it.
He said the skeleton staff of diplomats could survive for "a few weeks" on their dwindling food supplies. Asked whether there were resupply plans, he said, "If there were, given the hostile environment in which these people are living, it would be unproductive to discuss it."
Yesterday's announcement was the latest in a series of moves to persuade Iraq that it will be forced out of Kuwait if it does not withdraw.
The moves have coincided with Iraqi efforts to affect public opinion and to retain ties with the West by courting prominent citizens from countries in the anti-Iraq coalition and by releasing hostages.