The agonizing in the United States about when Saddam Hussein will have a usable nuclear weapon must strike the Iraqi leader as ironic. His own intelligence people have told him that there are already more than 400 nuclear weapons in the Persian Gulf, and Saddam didn't put them there.

They all belong to the U.S. Navy.

President Bush has not yet given what is called "nuclear-release authority" to his commanders in the gulf, so they cannot use nuclear weapons without consulting him. If nuclear weapons are fired, they will be fired on the president's say-so and no one else's. But Bush also has not renounced the use of nuclear weapons if the gulf stalemate turns to war. Instead, Bush has said that the United States will hit Iraq, and hit it hard, implying everything America has in its arsenal.

Reasonable military strategists agree that the use of nuclear weapons in the Middle East would be a disastrous decision. It would rob the United States of the moral high ground in future arguments against nuclear proliferation to Third World countries. And one nuclear explosion in the Persian Gulf would introduce a near-apocalyptic element in a region that will always be a tinderbox.

William Arkin, a military specialist now with Greenpeace, argues in the current issue of The Nation magazine that if Bush expects to wave his nuclear capability in front of Saddam's nose as a deterrent, "this would be a disaster of unimaginable proportions. It is unacceptable for the United States to create even the remotest possibility that nuclear weapons will be used."

And if the American nukes are not there as a deterrent, "then we are foolish to have them in the area in the first place," Arkin says. "By their mere presence, we take grave risks with a leader the president equates with Hitler."

From our sources we have assembled a picture of the nuclear punch Bush has sent to the region.

Some of our sources complain that since it is standard operating procedure to have nuclear weapons on aircraft carriers, those should not be counted in any debate about whether the United States has gone too far. Yet a number of the ships in the region were specifically dispatched to the gulf for this crisis and the Pentagon made the decision to leave the nuclear weapons on them.

Three aircraft carriers are already in the region, and another is on the way. Each has approximately 100 nuclear bombs on board.

Of the bombs already sitting on ships there, 240 are air-dropped B-61s with a yield varying from 10 to 300 kilotons. Ten kilotons is equivalent to 10,000 tons of TNT. Just one ton of TNT destroyed the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983.

There are at least 84 nuclear Tomahawk cruise missiles in the area on two battleships, four destroyers, six cruisers and five attack submarines.

Miscellaneous nuclear weapons and depth bombs on destroyers and frigates there bring the total to more than 400. When the aircraft carrier USS Ranger arrives, it will bring another 100.

If that isn't overkill, the United States has about 300 more nuclear bombs at U.S. bases in Turkey.

The question that remains for Bush is this: Will he forswear the use of nuclear weapons or fire them if push comes to shove?