The Bush administration, unwilling to wait for months to see if economic sanctions can induce Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to give up Kuwait, is counting on the military buildup by the United States and others in the Persian Gulf to force Saddam to make a move, thus altering a status quo that favors Iraq, according to senior officials.

Ideally, the rapidly assembling forces, including up to 200,000 U.S. ground troops in Saudi Arabia and a formidable naval armada, would persuade Saddam to bargain for a settlement. But they could also lead Saddam to make a mistake that could set off an Iraqi military revolt and create instability inside Iraq, officials said. They acknowledged that the massive force being sent to the gulf has a purpose that goes beyond protecting Saudi Arabia from Iraqi attack.

"We're not going to wait around for three months to see if the sanctions work," said a senior policy-maker who has been involved in deliberations over the crisis. "The biggest risk we face is paralysis or the status quo. If that happens, Saddam wins."

Ultimately, the United States wants to neutralize the influence of Saddam in the Persian Gulf and loosen his grip on the world's oil supply, which he strengthened considerably by seizing Kuwait Aug. 2.

President Bush reiterated yesterday that the United States wants Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait and restore the legitimate government. But, reflecting the complexity of the possible outcomes, a senior official said, "So what if he {Saddam} gets back over the border and still has troops two hours away from Saudi Arabia? Can we go home, knowing he's a threat to the balance of power for years to come? He's broken the mold, he's forever changed the balance over there. This implies a permanent presence in the gulf. We know we're going to have to live with the danger -- the question is how."

Another administration official said the international economic embargo against Iraq was only the first card that Bush has played in the campaign against Saddam. "This does not preclude playing other cards," the official said. "My impression is that we have the embargo card, with higher cards in reserve."

Although Bush said yesterday the embargo is going to "bite," administration estimates are that it could be months before it begins to inflict serious pain on Baghdad of the kind that would change Saddam's behavior. An administration source familiar with the intelligence estimates on Iraq said, "I don't think we have a clue what Iraq can sustain. We have a good sense how long it will take to close the doors. It will take two to three months to judge it."

"Applying this kind of pressure always takes longer than people think," said Barry Rubin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Countries can tighten their belt quite a lot. They could go on a very long time."

The administration source said turmoil may show up in occupied Kuwait first. "Electricity, desalinization, infrastructure . . . food shortages -- all will affect Kuwait first," the source said, referring to vulnerable aspects of normal Kuwaiti life. "I don't think anyone thinks people will start starving to death in Iraq. If they start starving it will be in Kuwait."

According to unofficial estimates by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as of July 1, Iraq reported wheat reserves equivalent to two months' supply; a four-month supply of rice, and barely 10 days' supply of corn. In each case, Iraq has some added production of its own that could alleviate shortages. According to department estimates, Iraq's dependence on foreign food is about 70 percent in years of good rainfall, and 80 percent in bad years.

Even as they wonder how the embargo will affect Iraq, officials also acknowledge that the United States will have difficulty holding together the embargo, particularly if oil supplies run short and cause public discontent in the participating nations. "Phase one was putting all the ducks in a row," said the senior policymaker. "Phase two will be . . . keeping them there, making sure the sanctions work and the non-blockade works." U.S. officials have avoided using the term blockade, because it is considered an act of war.

Bush said at his news conference yesterday he has difficulty envisioning a diplomatic solution now that would meet U.S. demands for a restoration of the exiled government of Kuwait. However, some officials said they hope the multinational military deployments now underway will threaten Saddam to the point where he will seek to bargain.

"I think the key question is, what is the Iraqi leadership thinking?" said Rubin. "They are thinking, the U.S. is looking for a chance to attack us." He added that the reaction of the rest of the Arab world probably disappointed Saddam. The Iraqis "know they are in bad shape -- but they may decide that sitting tight and trying to wait it out politically is better for them than trying to make a deal. . . . We may be seeing another negotiating round. But at this point I think Iraq is going to negotiate very tough and it's hard to believe they are starting to crack."

Rubin added that the United States seems to be trying to induce Saddam to negotiate by "supplying the pressure and the threat" in terms of a big military buildup.

A senior State Department official said a major reason so many ground troops are being deployed in Saudi Arabia is the calculation that a smaller force would be overwhelmed by Iraqi soldiers if they attacked from Kuwait. "We want to make sure what we put on the ground are not slaughtered," the official said.

But officials also acknowledged that the force being assembled may be much larger than required just to protect Saudi oil fields.

"There is no way we can maintain any illusion that we're in there to support air and naval forces," said the senior administration policy-maker. "At some point we're going to have to admit the ground troops' objective is defensive now, but could be offensive later. It's clearly more than defense."

Staff researcher Bruce Brown contributed to this report.