Iraq recalled its U.S. and United Nations ambassadors to Baghdad yesterday as President Bush met with his top military advisers to discuss how soon U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf would be prepared to launch an offensive attack against Iraqi forces in Kuwait.

Meanwhile, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein reportedly warned that if war breaks out, Israel will be his first target. His remarks were made in an interview with a Spanish television station, which summarized the interview but will show it in full on Wednesday.

Bush met for roughly three hours at his Camp David retreat with Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Also attending were national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and his deputy, Robert Gates.

Cheney and Powell had just returned from a visit to the gulf, where the question of U.S. readiness arose after Lt. Gen. Calvin A.H. Waller, deputy commander of U.S. forces in the region, told reporters the troops there would not be fully prepared for offensive action by Jan. 15, the U.N. Security Council deadline for Saddam to withdraw his forces from Kuwait.

On Saturday, Bush said that if there is clear provocation by Iraq, U.S. forces would be ready to respond immediately, but he did not directly address whether U.S. and allied forces were ready for offensive action. Cheney also played down Waller's remarks while touring the gulf region last week.

"The president's comments at Camp David and Cheney's in the gulf represent our position," a senior administration official said yesterday.

The administration has been trying to keep Saddam guessing about how soon after the Jan. 15 deadline offensive action could occur. "We're assured that the forces will respond as necessary and the buildup continues," White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said yesterday.

Since the beginning of the gulf crisis in August, military commanders have cautioned political leaders against launching any type of military action until U.S. forces are fully prepared. But Waller's statement was privately endorsed by senior military officials in the Pentagon and the gulf.

The reasons are many. While most of the military's offensive air power will be in place by mid-January, weather and shipping problems have delayed the movement of heavy tank forces from Europe. In addition, troops require several weeks to collect their equipment and move into positions.

The recall of Baghdad's ambassadors appeared to be part of an Iraqi government move for consultations in advance of the U.N. deadline. A spokesman for the Iraqi Embassy in Washington said Ambassador Mohamed Mashat and Iraq's U.N. envoy, Abdul Anbari, are expected to be in Baghdad for a week or two.

{Reuter reported from Amman, Jordan, that Iraqi ambassadors to all member countries of the U.N. Security Council had been summoned. "I believe the government thought it was time to make some consultation as well as to bring our ambassadors up to date," Anbari said in Amman.}

Saddam's remarks about attacking Tel Aviv were a fresh warning that war in the gulf could spread quickly, and were seen as another effort to divide the U.S.-Arab coalition. The interview with Spanish television reportedly took place Saturday.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said that, if Saddam's forces attack his country, Iraq would be "harmed in a most serious way." Israeli radio also reported that Shamir, when asked about the possibility of war in the gulf, replied, "I would say the danger is very close."

Last week Bush said he was confident that the international coalition would not erode if Iraq attacked Israel. But Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), after a weeklong trip to the region, said he was most concerned that such an attack would bring an Israeli military response, which in turn could prompt Jordan and Syria to enter the war against Israel.

But Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said in Cairo that Iraq would suffer many casualties if war breaks out. Meanwhile, Saudia Arabian King Fahd urged Saddam to avoid war, saying that "the curtain is not yet drawn on the scorching war" and that Saddam could "spare himself and his people its horror."