President Bush said yesterday that while the increased U.S. military deployment in the Persian Gulf does not mean he has abandoned hope for a peaceful conclusion, "there is a ticking of the clock" domestically and internationally that limits the time available to wait for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to bend to non-military action.

". . . Holding public opinion forever in any country is very difficult to do," Bush said in response to a question about why the United States could not simply wait out Saddam.

Bush's comments came in an interview with the Cable News Network, in which he acknowledged "a certain frustration" among the American people about U.S. policy in the gulf and falling support in opinion polls. But, he said, "I think the American people will support their president, and I think they know I'm prudent and . . . that I'm exploring every opportunity" for a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

The interview was part of an effort by Bush to state more clearly his reasons for making Iraq's invasion of Kuwait the first test of what he calls the new political order in the post-Cold War period. Saddam made his own contribution to the media battle yesterday, telling ABC News that he wants a peaceful solution but will not withdraw from Kuwait as a precondition. {Details on Page A22.}

Critics have increasingly faulted Bush for failing to state a clear and compelling case for deployment of more than 400,000 troops to the gulf and his decision last week to redefine their mission from defending Saudi Arabia against an Iraqi invasion to preparing for possible offensive action.

"I guess I'd have to accept some of the responsibility, if it's not as clear to others in this country as it is to me," Bush said. "But I'm going to do my level best to see that it is clear, because we're dealing with naked aggression, we're dealing with brutality . . . and . . . with a threat to the national security of this country and other countries."

In the half-hour session, Bush also referred repeatedly to the hostages held by Iraq. "I've got to tell you -- I have on my mind every night I go . . . to sleep, these hostages. Barbara and I -- you know -- our family, we still . . . say our prayers at night, and we say them for these hostages and the people in our embassy, as well as for our kids that are halfway around the world."

Bush, on the eve of his departure for Europe and the Middle East, reiterated that increasing the force of 230,000 troops now there to more than 400,000 was meant to preserve the "credible military option" of an offensive strike if he decides to use it. "If an option is out there, it'd better be credible, and one way to have a credible option is to have enough force there to fulfill one's responsibilities if one has to exercise that option," he said.

In addition, Bush said, "I am sending a signal, a clear, clarion signal to Saddam Hussein, we are deadly serious" about Iraq leaving Kuwait, about not harming American hostages, about "the sanctity" of the besieged U.S. Embassy in Kuwait City and about "the stability of the world economic system."

The president also restated his concerns about Saddam's possessing chemical, biological and eventually nuclear weapons even if he withdraws from Kuwait. While stating he was not trying to "escalate" his demands, the president said an acceptable solution to the crisis will have to deal with those weapons through some United Nations-type monitoring and control.

While saying that the international alliance against Saddam remains "unwavering" today, the president signaled he has doubts about how long public support, abroad and at home, can last. "In any country, I think there is a ticking of the clock . . . and I don't think this matter is going to go on forever. As far as I am concerned, it's not."

Even though public polls show Americans strongly support a negotiated settlement with Saddam, Bush yesterday rejected the notion of a solution that would help Saddam save face. "I am not going to compromise one single iota," Bush said. "When you rape, pillage and plunder a neighbor, should you then ask the world, hey, give me a little face, give me a little face-saving so I can do what I should have done months ago?" he asked.

". . . . Should we say the brutality to these hostages and the way you've treated these embassies should be rewarded, so you, sir, can have some face, so you can brutalize somebody else tomorrow . . . ?"

Over the months of the crisis, the president has alternately played down the hostages and emphasized them, caught between his fear of basing his policies on the fate of the Americans held in Iraq and Kuwait, and what appears to be his genuine anger over their plight.

The interview was a clear effort by the president to offer a fuller, broader rationale for why he believes the United States must face down Saddam, even if it comes to a military conflict. Stopping "a mad dictator from possibly controlling the economic well-being of every country in the world" by controlling the Middle East's oil reserves was the most direct economic explanation, he said. But, also, he said, "It is aggression. It is the safety of human life. It is the concern over a U.S. embassy where the man's trying to starve it out. It is a world order that is threatened. It is the national security" of the United States and of "many other countries."

To cite just one of those reasons, Bush said, was "simplistic" because "It's not just one piece of the puzzle. It is the puzzle altogether."

In a week when members of Congress have raised questions about the administration's willingness to keep them informed about gulf policy, Bush strongly defended his record.

"I've consulted more than any other president in history," he said, adding that he was grateful for the overall support he has received from Democrats and Republicans.

But he said he would continue to protect his powers as commander-in-chief. "I'm going to safeguard those executive powers and they have every right in the world to safeguard the powers of the Congress," he said.

Bush said he does not feel "any mode of confrontation" with Congress over gulf policy.

"Individual congressmen may look at this differently than I do and some are willing to tell me what not to do, but {are} a little bit fuzzy and unclear on what to do," he said. "But that's not their job. My job is to make tough decisions and to hold this coalition together and to drive forward to see that this aggression is not rewarded."