RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- U.S.-led forces in the Persian Gulf will not be ready to attack Iraq by Jan. 15, the deadline the United Nations has set for Baghdad to withdraw its forces from Kuwait, a senior U.S. commander said yesterday.
The candid assessment by the officer, Lt. Gen. Calvin A. H. Waller, deputy commander of U.S. forces in the gulf, had the effect of undermining the Bush administration's policy of applying pressure on Iraq in advance of the Jan. 15 deadline.
The administration has wanted to leave the impression that if Iraq does not withdraw from Kuwait by then, it faced the risk of imminent military conflict.
General Waller said that because of constraints on matching up troops with their equipment and sending them to their field positions, there was a "distinct possibility that every unit will not be fully combat-ready until some time after Feb. 1," or perhaps as late as mid-February.
General Waller, who is second in command to Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. forces in the gulf, made his comments in a 30-minute interview with reporters traveling here with Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin L. Powell.
General Waller likened his situation to that of a football coach preparing for the game of his life.
"I want everything I can possibly get and have it my side of the field when I get ready to go into the Super Bowl," he said.
On the readiness issue, General Waller said in the interview: "I can't imagine what the president would say that he would want (( to do right on the 15th.
"I'd say to the president, to the secretary of defense, as well as to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that until our full complement offorces are on the ground, we should not initiate hostile activities," General Waller said.
In Washington, Bush administration officials said General Waller's comments were undercutting their gulf strategy, which is to convince President Saddam Hussein of Iraq that unless he peacefully withdraws from Kuwait by Jan. 15, his army and government would face imminent destruction.
Said one administration policy maker of General Waller's remarks: "This is not the message we were trying to send now."
Administration officials at the White House and State Department, often seeming to speak in anger, insisted that the president had been fully briefed on the readiness of U.S. troops in the gulf and that he was not about to send anyone to war without full preparation. Whether the troops would actually be 100 percent ready or not by Jan. 15 is not really the point, the officials said.
The point, they said, is that the administration's entire strategy since early November has been designed to drive home to Mr. Hussein the point that the United States and its allies would be ready on or about Jan. 15, and that if he is not out of Kuwait by midnight on that day he will be driven out soon thereafter.
The general's comments also seemed to undercut diplomatic efforts by the Bush administration to find a suitable date for Secretary of State James A. Baker III to meet with President Hussein in Baghdad.
The Iraqi leader has offered Jan. 12 as the earliest date he has available for such a meeting. The administration has proposed any time up to Jan. 3, arguing that the later date would not give Iraq enough time to pull its troops out of Kuwait before Jan. 15.
The U.N. Security Council resolution authorizes the use of force to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait if Iraq has not pulled out by then.
General Waller, 53, a three-star general who took his post here a month ago, tried to play down the importance of the deadline in resolving the gulf crisis.
"What is so magic" about Jan. 15? General Waller asked. "Why does it have to be that on Jan. 15 we must be ready to go and initiate hostilities?"
General Waller was unusually candid in the interview, and stunned aides to Generals Powell and Schwarzkopf, who sat in on the briefing, said later that the officer's forthrightness had overstepped prudent boundaries.
A spokesman for Mr. Cheney, Pete Williams, said that the defense secretary had been in meetings all day with Saudi officials and had not had a chance to see General Waller's remarks.
The general's comments go beyond remarks Mr. Cheney made Tuesday at the beginning of a five-day trip here, when he said that not all U.S. forces would be "combat ready" by Jan. 15.
Speaking to reporters aboard his plane at that time, Mr. Cheney said, "It takes time to get organized, marry them up with their equipment and get them acclimated.
"Obviously there is additional work to be done before you would identify them as combat-ready," he said.
General Waller said U.S. forces would number about 430,000 when the latest wave of reinforcements arrive. More than 220,000 allied troops would join them against more than 500,000 Iraqis.
The accounting of U.S. troops is the most precise to date by a military official. Pentagon aides have said privately for several weeks that the total force would exceed 400,000.