WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon told President Bush yesterday that the dominant view among U.S. military officials is that U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia will not be ready for offensive action against Iraq on Jan. 15, and that any attack should be deferred until February at the earliest.
The issue of the combat-readiness of U.S. forces came to prominence last week when the deputy commander of U.S. troops there, Lt. Gen. Calvin A. H. Waller, told reporters that U.S.-led forces would not be ready by the Jan. 15 deadline set by the United Nations Security Council for Iraq to withdraw its troops from Kuwait.
White House and Pentagon officials went to great lengths to play down General Waller's comments.
But Bush administration officials said yesterday that Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, informed Mr. Bush in a meeting at Camp David that General Waller's comments represented a widespread view among U.S. military officials.
Mr. Cheney and General Powell met with Mr. Bush yesterday on their return from a five-day trip to Saudi Arabia.
General Waller had said that there was a "distinct possibility" that all U.S. combat units would not be ready until sometime after Feb. 1 and perhaps as late as mid-February.
Yesterday, a senior administration official said that President Bush was informed that General Waller's assessment was "broadly representative of the military view," and that most military officials believe that the United States should wait until mid-February to take action.
Bush administration officials in Washington, who asked not to be identified, complained last week that the general's assessment had undercut their efforts to press President Saddam Hussein of Iraq to pull his troops out of Kuwait.
And the White House spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, tried to limit the political damage done by General Waller's comments, implying that they represented a minority view and asserting that the White House had been assured that the military "will be ready to do whatever they are called on to do."
The Pentagon assessment presented to Mr. Bush was initially reported yesterday evening by ABC News.
A senior administration official said that much of the military believes that the weeks of additional preparation are needed to acclimatethe new troops to the conditions in Saudi Arabia and improve logistics.
"What Waller said was that the best way to proceed was to take more time," said the official.
While explaining that this was the main view of the U.S. military, the official declined to disclose Mr. Cheney's and General Powell's private advice to the president about how and when an attack against Iraqi forces might be launched.
Cheney acknowledged during his recent trip to Saudi Arabia that not all U.S. forces would be combat-ready by Jan. 15.
But Mr. Cheney's carefully phrased comments stopped well short of General Waller's public recommendation that military action be deferred until as late as mid-February, and indeed the Pentagon has devoted much of its considerable public relations efforts in recent days to playing down the significance of General Waller's public assessment.
trying to deal with the controversy stirred up by General Waller's comments, the administration has sent a variety of conflicting signals.
On one hand, the administration is trying to keep the pressure on Mr. Hussein by pointedly keeping open the possibility of military action in January.
On the other hand, administration officials have also said that it was never their intention to suggest that an attack would immediately be carried out if Baghdad failed to meet the Jan. 15 deadline.
While General Waller's comments stirred up a public furor, an official from one of the military services said yesterday that the remarks were not surprising to those officials charged with transporting and organizing American forces in the Persian Gulf for possible combat.
"When the Pentagon tells the White House that the forces will be there in January, all that means is that is when the last guy has stepped on shore," said this official, who spoke on condition his name not be used.
Mr. Bush did not address the issue of combat-readiness or the timing of a possible attack in his Christmas message to the troops yesterday.
Instead, he told them in a taped message that their sacrifices would always be remembered.
"I will do my level best to bring you home without a single shot fired," Mr. Bush said.