RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA, DEC. 19 -- The deputy commander of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia said today that his troops "will not be ready for combat activities" on Jan. 15, the U.N. deadline for an Iraqi pullout from Kuwait, and he "can't imagine" that President Bush will order an offensive that soon.

Lt. Gen. Calvin A. H. Waller, the second-ranking officer in Operation Desert Shield, behind Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, said major reinforcements ordered by Bush Nov. 8 still are in transit from Europe and the United States and would not be combat-ready until "sometime between the 15th of January and the middle of February."

He said he would advise Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney and Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "that until our full complement of forces are on the ground . . . we should not initiate hostile activities." Cheney and Powell arrived here for briefings today.

Waller's comments may reflect, in part, a general's professional caution. But Pentagon sources have said U.S. forces would employ various means of deception to help preserve an element of surprise in any attack. Waller himself said, "One of the last things I want to do is to give {Iraqi President} Saddam Hussein what our plan consists of."

Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater, when asked at the White House about Waller's comments, said, "What he really said is they might not be as ready as they would like to be . . . for all the contingencies.

"We are assured they will be ready to do whatever they are called upon to do."

Waller's remarks, in a 30-minute interview with eight journalists, followed reports that important elements of the so-called Phase Two deployments -- including the Army's VII Corps from Germany and the 1st Infantry Division in Fort Riley, Kan. -- will not be in position by Jan. 15.

Cheney and Powell had made similar statements last week. Speaking to reporters on the flight from Washington to Riyadh, Cheney said most of the forces will be in position by Jan. 15, "but obviously there's additional work to be done before you would identify them as combat-ready." They would "need time to acclimate and to marry up with their equipment," he said.

Powell said on the flight that he was "not going to speculate" whether the troops would be prepared to launch an attack against Iraqi forces by the U.N. deadline.

Waller began his comments with a sports analogy. "I'm like a football coach," he said. "I want everything I can possibly get and have at my side of the field when I get ready to go into the Super Bowl."

In response to a question, the general said that if the team's owner asked him Jan. 15 whether he was prepared, "I'd tell him, 'No, I'm not ready to do the job.' "

Waller and other officials stressed that the U.N. deadline for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait remains clear and binding on Saddam.

"I think even Ray Charles could see that the 15th of January is a very critical date," Waller said.

"On January 15th, if you're not out of Kuwait and if you don't live up to the U.N. resolution, then you're being held at harm's risk," he said.

The 53-year-old Army general allowed a note of exasperation to creep into his Louisiana drawl when asked whether his military assessment could undercut diplomatic efforts to enforce the deadline.

"What is so magic? Why does it have to be that on January 15 we must be ready to go and initiate hostilities at midnight on the 16th?" he asked.

Waller confirmed that American troop strength in the gulf, now about 260,000, will be in the "ballpark" of 430,000 when the new deployments are complete.

More than 100,000 of the new troops, including the bulk of the ground combat troop reinforcements, are coming from the Army's VII Corps in Germany. Waller said severe snowstorms in Europe have hampered VII Corps' enormous redeployment task.

{Officials at the U.S. Air Force's European headquarters at Ramstein Air Base in Germany announced today that they were moving up the dates for American warplanes to leave four European bases for the gulf, Reuter reported. A spokesman said the early departures would take place between Thursday and Dec. 28 or 29.}

The Los Angeles Times added from Budapest:

The Hungarian legislature announced that a 40-man army medical team is being readied for service in the Persian Gulf, and held a five-hour secret session on "matters of national defense" that fueled speculation that Hungarian airspace or bases might be used in the event of an attack on Iraq.

Hungary has dozens of former Soviet military bases that could provide refueling stops about halfway between Iraq and Britain, where many of NATO's air force units are based.

According to the Budapest daily Nepszabadsag, Parliament Speaker Gyorgy Szabad was asked by a Hungarian journalist if the government had received a request from the U.N. Security Council to allow "access to the forces against Iraq to Hungarian airspace and airports."

The speaker said that he could make no comment and suggested that the journalist had been exposed to privileged information.