WITH U.S. FORCES, SAUDI ARABIA -- Army Spec. Garth Flowers bent deep in a newly dug bunker, hoisted a sandbag in one smooth pull and handed it to the United States' ranking general.

Absorbed in his labor amid the stunning explosions of 105mm howitzers, Flowers had not heard the VIPs arriving. He mistook the proffered handshake of Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for the reach of a neighboring grunt in the sandbag brigade.

Flowers said his career passed in front of him when he saw the four stars on Powell's battle fatigues, but the general did not seem to mind. Smiling broadly, he slammed the sandbag into a bunker and wished the dazed artilleryman a Merry Christmas.

"I didn't even know who it was," said Flowers, still talking to himself three minutes later.

Powell frequently made that kind of impression on star-struck troops in two days of visits to forward positions. Largely leaving to Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney the daily diplomatic message -- conveyed with carefully modulated belligerence to traveling reporters -- Powell mainly communed with the troops.

The general seemed to form bonds with most of those who met him. With some, he cracked jokes and posed for photographs. With others, he spoke quietly of fear late at night and "how your stomach turns over it."

To all who asked, and some who did not, Powell answered the most urgent question with an absence of bravado: "Be ready for war."

Preparing for war, aides said, was the principal business of the two top U.S. defense officials in their five-day trip through the Persian Gulf, which ended Sunday. Cheney and Powell spent many hours in top-secret consultations with theater commanders, reviewing war plans and readiness reports in the U.S. Central Command's war room in Riyadh.

They also met in Riyadh with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and Defense Minister Prince Sultan. On the way home, the Americans saw Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo.

As Cheney and Powell made ready, if need be, to expel the Iraqi army from Kuwait, they had a timely reminder of the role of luck and circumstance.

Elaborate plans to fly them by helicopter to forward positions Friday were swept away by 25-knot winds that whipped up the Eastern Province's thickest dust storm in weeks. The VC-137C jet that flew them with aides and reporters from Riyadh to Dhahran had to abort its first approach to the airfield, climbing and banking in a gut-churning surge of power seconds before touchdown.

Proceeding instead by sedan and HMMWV (pronounced "hum-vee"), the Army's new generation of jeep, they took an improvised tour through acres of asphalt and canvas where there was nothing but sand before August.

Some of their stops, like their first at the Air Force's 354th Tactical Fighter Wing, were off-limits to traveling press. ("Can't tell you," deadpanned Air Force Capt. Becky Colaw, trying to look ferocious. "I'd have to kill you.") But most were in the open, with small and large groups of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

Cheney, who has never served in uniform, used digs at the media and Congress to forge us-against-them links to the troops. "Maybe we can ask the press here to leave for a moment," he replied several times, when he did not want to answer a question from the troops.

"I used to be a congressman, before I found honest work," he told an airman of the 23rd Tactical Fighter Wing who asked whether Congress would place political limits on the conduct of war.

The troops, for the most part, responded. They laughed at Cheney's jokes and roared approval of his promises that there would be no restrictions on them if combat began. But none got the answer they most wanted, and some, like Airman R. L. Miller, were unsatisfied.

"Only two ways to go," Miller said, disgusted. "Either north {to Kuwait}, or home. It's all I want to hear."

Inside an air-conditioned tent nearby, some airmen passed up the latest VIP visit for barbell workouts. "They keep telling us, 'The American people are behind you,' " said Senior Airman Jeff Zeitvogel. "Seems like a lot of repetitiveness."

"Cheney's probably going to go over there and start the peace talks, leave us here forever," added Senior Airman Jeff Crane.

Staff Sgt. Armando Graham, a hulking security policeman, screwed up his face in disbelief when he heard Powell tell pilots of tank-killing A-10 jets, "It's going to be fun if it ever gets started."

"What's he calling fun?" Graham asked no one in particular. "He's not going to be here."

But later, when the troops pressed Powell for snapshots and autographs, Graham was right up front. Powell was mobbed like a rock star, signing anything they put in front of him -- magazines, Saudi currency, a skateboard. He used airmen's foreheads to brace his pen.

At another stop, another day, four enlisted women from the Army's 59th Chemical Company, 101st Corps Support Group, shrieked and giggled as they posed for Polaroids with the general. "I touched his arm! I touched his arm!" one shouted.

The questions from servicemen and women were often searching, and always to the point. Among support troops -- maintenance workers, drivers, engineers -- they tended toward the big picture. Was the administration ready to leave Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in power if he withdrew? Could Saddam split the American-led coalition with a partial withdrawal? How would the military's "total force" concept, combining active-duty troops and reserves, survive the congressionally mandated budget reductions of the 1990s?

Front-line troops tended more toward the immediate in their questions. "Sir, is it possible for us to get the M-60-E2 machine gun?" asked a member of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).

"Where and how would a light-infantry unit be used against a main armored threat?" asked another.

Powell reassured the troops that they would have what they needed, if it came to a fight with Saddam, to "challenge him in ways he's never seen before."

The general, who once commanded the 2nd Brigade, said he remembered what it felt like to wait. He knew, he said, "the thoughts you're given late at night and how your stomach turns over it."

"Stay with us, keep being the professionals you've been so far, and we'll take care of your families until you get home safely," Powell said. He began the following day with a tour of the Army's Central Command port facilities, which he called "a logistician's dream and a logistician's nightmare."

Vast lots of Apache and Chinook helicopters, many with rotor blades detached, lined his route. Hundreds of M1A1 tanks from Germany, the most powerful armored force in the U.S. arsenal, stood bumper to bumper, as though in a stadium parking lot. Most, fresh off their ships, were still painted woodland green. Soon they would head for what soldiers call the "tanning salon" for a coat of desert-colored paint.

An hour-long flight by Blackhawk helicopter brought Powell to a forward battalion of the 101st Airborne Division.

Powell, who had sipped cardamom tea at royal palaces, squatted beneath camouflage netting and joined Charlie Comapany troops for a field-ration lunch.

Squeezing the foil-covered contents of his Meal-Ready-to-Eat between thumb and forefinger, he ripped it open expertly and drew the moist packaging across his lips for the first drop of chicken a la king.