EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA -- President Bush's two top military men told U.S. troops yesterday that they hope a peaceful solution to the Persian Gulf crisis is still possible, but they emphasized that Iraq must withdraw fully from Kuwait or there will be war.
Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, here to assess the readiness of U.S. forces for possible war, traveled separately to front-line units where they observed live-fire exercises, shared field rations with the troops and answered numerous questions about the likelihood of war.
Asked by a sailor aboard the hospital ship Mercy about the conduct and duration of a possible conflict, Mr. Cheney replied: "If hostilities start, we want to make it absolutely clear that they will be over just as quickly as possible. There will be no holds barred. . . . The only acceptable outcome will be very swift and very total and absolute victory. We won't settle for anything else."
At the 101st Airborne Division, General Powell told a soldier who asked whether Iraqi President Saddam Hussein might order withdrawal from Kuwait: "I don't know. I'll let the political leaders figure that out. I hope he does. I'd like to see this thing solved peacefully. . . . But he's proved to be a tough person. He's a very aggressive man."
Mr. Cheney and General Powell reassured the troops at each stop of strong public support at home and sympathized with them over their separation from their families during Christmas season.
At each of Mr. Cheney's visits -- a forward Marine combat unit, the hospital ship and aboard the cruiser Bunker Hill -- the secretary of defense was asked whether U.S. forces would be ready to fight after the Jan. 15 U.N. deadline for Mr. Hussein to withdraw his troops from Kuwait.
Mr. Cheney told members of the 1st Marine Division at a camp just 50 miles south of the Saudi-Kuwaiti border that the huge U.S. expeditionary force would be prepared to fight "soon" after the deadline.
While Mr. Cheney sought to keep alive the threat of early military action, some field commanders endorsed the advice from Lt. Gen. Calvin A. H. Waller, deputy commander of U.S. forces in the gulf, to his superiors that any offensive be delayed until the full 430,000-man U.S. force is in place and prepared to do battle.
"I'd go along with that," said Brig. Gen. Tom Draude, assistant division commander of the 1st Marine Division, as his troops were demonstrating for Mr. Cheney how light infantry can stop a tank. "I don't think you should initiate anything as critical as combat until you're as ready as you can be."
Mr. Cheney and General Powell leave Saudi Arabia today for a visit to Egypt, where they will meet with President Hosni Mubarak. They will return to the United States tonight.