The escalation of pressure against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein by the United States is part of a delicate new effort at brinkmanship -- to scare Saddam into relinquishing Kuwait, to prepare the American people for possible hostilities and, if war comes, to improve U.S. firepower on the ground, according to high-ranking administration officials.

The administration's tactics include a more explicit rhetorical threat to use force by President Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III, the possible deployment of tens of thousands of additional armored troops to the Arabian peninsula, Baker's forthcoming trip to the gulf region and still more resolutions against Iraq at the United Nations, where the United States assumes the chair of the Security Council for the next month.

All these efforts could put U.S. forces in the gulf closer to conflict, but they also are intended to drive Saddam into retreat, according to the officials and outside analysts. If he does not budge, then Bush will have to decide, perhaps in November or December, about whether to go to war to liberate Kuwait.

The president's rhetorical and logistical offensive is complicated by the need to prepare an increasingly skeptical American public for a possible conflict, and at the same time avoid a domestic backlash that could make it harder to make war.

"We have two very distinct audiences," said a senior State Department official. "Saddam Hussein is listening to all of this and you hope he cracks or falls on the floor and comes to Jesus. But at the same time you have to be careful with the domestic audience. You've got to explain what you're doing here."

The complex problem of sending signals to different audiences -- domestic and foreign -- has plagued U.S. policy-makers in numerous foreign crises. So it has been in this confrontation, and there was fresh evidence of the problem yesterday: Bush told congressional leaders his patience with Saddam was wearing thin, but key lawmakers warned him against moving precipitously toward war.

In the same vein, Baker charged in a speech Monday that U.S. hostages are being abused in captivity, but the lawmakers questioned whether the administration is searching for a pretext to fight.

A similar push-and-pull dynamic rippled through international diplomacy in recent days when both the Soviet Union and France talked optimistically about peace prospects while the United States, Britain and others have beat the drums of war ever louder.

Senior U.S. officials said the administration's strategy for the next few weeks is to "calibrate" a steady increase in pressure against Saddam. "You don't want to shoot all your ammunition at once," said the State Department official.

Baker's trip, which is planned as an effort to solidify the alliance, will include meetings with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze as well as visits to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, France and Britain.

Charles Kupchan, assistant professor of politics at Princeton and author of a book on Persian Gulf security, said the new allied pressure tactics are clearly designed to prepare for war while creating the maximum pressure for a peaceful solution if possible.

"There's no question if you are playing a game of brinkmanship you create the best possible position you can before you begin to negotiate," he said. "At this point, those negotiations are not going to pay off. The Russians have been trying to open a door and it hasn't succeeded.

"Possibly this is an attempt to turn the screw one more level," he said of the Pentagon decision to perhaps deploy up to 100,000 troops and heavy armored divisions from Europe and elsewhere to join the more than 200,000 U.S. soldiers and sailors already in the gulf region.

"But given the nature of the deployment, you can't see it only as that. There is clearly a move toward war-fighting. This is much more than deterrent posturing -- you have a sufficient deterrent {already} on the ground. I interpret that size deployment as something that clearly has the goal of upping the ante not simply in bargaining but in firepower."

The administration activity comes as Saddam, more directly than before, is probing for weak links in the alliance's resolve. Senior U.S. officials were chagrined this week when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev suggested that an inter-Arab meeting be convened to resolve the crisis, just the kind of bargaining that officials believe could lead to incomplete compliance with the U.N. demands -- thus, a defeat for Bush's goals. Last week, the U.S. officials were similarly upset with a suggestion by the Saudi defense minister that territorial concessions were possible to get Saddam out of Kuwait.

Yesterday, the United States quickly asked Soviet officials for a clarification of Gorbachev's remark, while continuing to praise his cooperation. Separately, Soviet officials insisted that Gorbachev was not trying to create a crack in the alliance.

Senior U.S. officials said they believe France and the Soviet Union are staking out positions somewhat independent of the United States in the event of hostilities, to preserve their long-standing relationships in the Middle East.

The U.S. officials said they had received firm reports that the Soviet diplomatic mission by envoy Yevgeny Primakov had produced no sign of a change in Saddam's attitude. These officials said Saddam had rejected any settlement in line with the U.N. resolutions, and he had demanded new bargaining with Arab states and an international peace conference linked to the Arab-Israeli conflict.