The Bush administration won a key battle this week at the United Nations, but appeared to lose ground in the domestic political contest as testimony from a lineup of respected military experts and former commanders bolstered congressional fears that the United States is moving too quickly toward war with Iraq.

A week of hearings by the Senate Armed Services Committee, orchestrated by Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who is arguably the Senate's most influential figure on military affairs, raised a series of pointed questions about the administration's policy and effectively demolished any notion that Bush's recent handling of the Middle East crisis enjoys bipartisan support.

While Nunn and many other legislators said yesterday that they approve of the overall goal of ending Iraq's occupation of Kuwaiti territory, and some said they were reassured by the announcement of a diplomatic initiative, they expressed strong concerns about the Bush administration's tactic of nearly doubling the number of U.S. troops deployed in the region to more than 400,000 in preparation for potential offensive action against Iraq early next year.

The administration chose not to have its own senior military and diplomatic officials testify this week, which in retrospect appears to have been a tactical error. The purpose was to avoid saying anything that might have jeopardized the U.N. vote, but the result of four days of testimony by prominent individuals largely critical of the additional deployment was to deepen concern about the president's actions.

By week's end, officials and legislators doubted whether there was congressional support for a resolution that would simply echo the one adopted by the U.N. Security Council.

That resolution approved the use of "all necessary means," including military force, to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait after a Jan. 15 deadline. But as Nunn told reporters yesterday afternoon, virtually all of the military experts who appeared this week said this deadline fell far too soon, and many legislators seemed inclined to agree.

"The testimony thus far . . . is that the {international} embargo {of trade with Iraq} will work if we have patience," Nunn said. Although he did not say what would constitute "patience," two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said they would be willing to wait more than a year to see if the trade sanctions force a shift in Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's policy on Kuwait.

"If, in fact, the sanctions will work in 12 to 18 months instead of six months, the trade-off of avoiding war with its attendant sacrifices and uncertainties would in my estimation be worth it," said retired Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., the JCS chairman from 1985 to 1989.

Retired Air Force Gen. David C. Jones, the JCS chairman from 1978 to 1982, voiced similar reservations, saying, "my main concern with this latest scheduled reinforcement isn't that we might choose to fight but rather that the deployment might cause us to fight, perhaps prematurely and perhaps unnecessarily" due to the difficulties of maintaining such a large force so far from home for an extended period of time.

As several legislators remarked afterwards, it was rare for such a high-ranking former commanders to take issue so strongly with an administration preparing for war.

Retired Lt. Gen. William E. Odom, a former director of Army Intelligence and of the National Security Agency, yesterday added his view that the sanctions will ultimately degrade Iraqi military capabilities and that a peaceful solution would help preserve the vital balance of power between Iraq and its neighbors in the region.

Bush, who clearly wants to move quickly, yesterday responded to such testimony by saying that to delay an end to the Persian Gulf crisis would cause more suffering to those developing countries hardest hit by the higher oil prices and other dislocations generated by the crisis.

Several Republicans at the hearings, such as Sen. Malcolm Wallop (Wyo.) and Dan Coats (Ind.), also expressed impatience with economic sanctions, but other Republicans were quiet and none of the committee's Democrats displayed any sympathy.

The result, according to a key Democratic legislative aide, is that "it looks like Bush is about to have a Republican war in the gulf," with potentially devastating consequences for his party if the fighting goes poorly and U.S. casualties are high.

A senior defense official, asked to describe the political impact of the hearings, said "the public has been given a lot of reasons to believe that if we just wait a year, we can get everything peacefully. That's a fairly formidable argument for taking your time. But so far, they have only heard one side of the debate."

A key point of disagreement between Bush and some of the witnesses this week is what the United States and its allies should be seeking in any settlement of the crisis. While Bush made clear yesterday that a return to the "status quo" -- such as a complete Iraqi military withdrawal from Kuwait -- would not be sufficient, several witnesses suggested that Washington should be satisfied if the economic sanctions forced only that result.

James R. Schlesinger, a former defense secretary, warned, for example, that to add any further demands risks boxing Saddam into a corner from which he would prefer to fight his way out.

Schlesinger suggested Saddam had every right to expect guarantees that if he withdraws from Kuwait, his forces will be protected from future attack and his country from an indefinite extension of economic sanctions. But Bush said yesterday: "I think it would be very proper to discuss what . . . safeguards {there} should be after there has been a total compliance with the United Nations resolutions," which other officials have said will include lasting sanctions aimed at stopping Iraq's development of weapons of mass destruction.