WITH U.S. FORCES, SAUDI ARABIA, DEC. 21 -- Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney, renewing a campaign of tough talk against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, told U.S. airmen here today, "It looks like he doesn't have the message, and we may have to use force to get him out."
"We may be coming to the moment of truth in this crisis," Cheney told a crowd of several hundred airmen from the 354th Tactical Fighter Wing during a tour of U.S. forces. "It's far better to deal with him now than it would be five or 10 years from now."
Saddam appeared to confirm Cheney's suspicions during a television interview broadcast today in which he stated categorically that Iraq would not withdraw its forces from Kuwait by the Jan. 15 deadline set by the United Nations.
Asked by German television in an interview recorded in Baghdad Thursday whether he would observe the deadline, Saddam replied, "No," and warned: "In a war, there will be many losses, not just in human life. . . . Allah is on our side."
The escalating war of words was supplemented today by large-scale preparations for battle on both sides, including air-raid drills in Baghdad and an attack alert for U.S. forces here in Saudi Arabia.
In Baghdad, 1 million residents of the eastern half of the Iraqi capital participated in evacuation drills as air-raid sirens blared throughout the city. The drill, designed to test civilian preparedness for war, began shortly after sunrise and lasted five hours. Another drill is planned for Saturday in western Baghdad. Similar exercises took place in the southern port city of Basra on Thursday.
Four hours before Cheney's remarks, as if to underscore the momentum toward war, troops at the sprawling "Tent City" air base here scrambled into gas masks, rubber gloves and protective bunkers in response to a "Condition Red" alert, signaling imminent attack by enemy forces. It turned out to be prompted by a missile test in Israel.
Capt. Becky Colaw said sirens began sounding the base's most urgent form of alert about 10:30 a.m. (2:30 a.m. EST) and stopped 15 minutes later. The only previous Condition Red, she said, came on Dec. 2 when Iraq test-fired three medium-range missiles, which all landed in Iraqi territory.
Soldiers of the 2nd Brigade of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, based nearby, said they had been placed on "NBC alert" -- for nuclear-biological-chemical weapons -- at about the same time as the Condition Red was sounded. Some soldiers said they had been told afterward that it was a drill. Others said their commanders told them the alert had resulted from another Iraqi missile launch.
Colaw and other airmen said the alert was not a drill. It began, they said, when the unit's alarm-notification system was "activated from an outside source."
Officials traveling with Cheney and Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declined to speak publicly about the source of the alarm.
Staff Sgt. Armando Graham, a security policeman with the 354th, said it took him less than 30 seconds to stop his jeep, wrench on a gas mask and dive into one of the bunkers lining each road here. What caused the alert, he said, is a question to be answered "well above my pay grade."
U.S. officials in Washington said the heightened alert status came in response to a missile test firing at about 10 a.m. local gulf time by the Israeli military in Israeli territory, Washington Post staff writer Molly Moore reported. Officials said the Israeli military had not notified American authorities of the test firing ahead of time.
It was not clear whether Cheney had been informed of the Israeli missile tests before his remarks today. In a question-and-answer session with Air Force maintenance personnel, Cheney was asked about the possibility of Israel being drawn into the Persian Gulf confrontation. "The Israelis have been pretty good at keeping their heads down," he replied.
Today's pre-Christmas troop review by Cheney and Powell came on the heels of a senior commander's assertion that American-led forces in the gulf would not be ready for an attack on Iraqi forces by Jan. 15.
Cheney and Powell rejected the view expressed here Wednesday by Lt. Gen. Calvin A.H. Waller and used the occasion to step up the threat of force against Iraq. Cheney took several opportunities to declare the nearness of a point of decision and said "the only acceptable outcome is absolute, total victory."
"There won't be any restrictions" on the military in the event of war, he said. "Nobody's hands are going to be tied behind their backs."
Powell, at Cheney's side during the question-and-answer session, grabbed the microphone and added, "If we go in, we go in to win, not fool around."
"Are we just going to fight in Kuwait or are we going to level Baghdad?" one airman asked.
"No comment," Cheney replied, to roars of approval and laughter.
Despite the war preparations and escalation in bellicose talk from both sides, Algeria's foreign minister, Sid Ahmed Ghozali, said today that Iraq is willing to compromise on the gulf crisis "and is willing to pay the price" to avoid war.
Ghozali, in Rome with Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid on a tour aimed at mediating in the crisis, said Baghdad "certainly seeks a peaceful solution and is willing to pay the price for it -- but not any price. And it will not accept any settlement that sullies its honor."
Ghozali was not specific about what concessions Iraq might make, and Iraqi leaders have repeatedly stated there is no turning back from Baghdad's decision in August to annex Kuwait as a province.
However, recent news reports from Europe have said Iraq might be willing to withdraw from most of Kuwait and permit the return of Kuwait's royal family if Iraq were allowed to keep the rich Rumailah oil field that straddles the border between the two countries.
"Iraq has no illusions about the military balance in the area," Ghozali told reporters. "It has no illusions whatever on that score and on what the consequences of a confrontation would be for Iraq."
In Belgium, the Foreign Ministry said the Belgian and German air forces were preparing a squadron of Mirage jet fighters for deployment in Turkey to deter possible Iraqi attacks there. Turkish Defense Minister Huznu Dogan told reporters the total force under consideration was about 40 aircraft.