Top U.S. military commanders in the Middle East have cautioned administration officials against pushing them into war with Iraq before the American force is fully prepared in early to mid-February, Pentagon officials said yesterday.

Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin L. Powell conveyed those concerns to President Bush Monday after returning from a five-day visit to the U.S. military contingent in Saudi Arabia.

While Cheney has said publicly U.S. forces will execute any orders that may be issued by the president in connection with the United Nations' Jan. 15 deadline for Iraqi withdawal from Kuwait, he reportedly told Bush that not all U.S. forces will be in position by the political deadline, military authorities said.

"January 15 was a political deadline created by the diplomats," one senior military official said. "It has not been the deadline from the military point of view." Although the U.N. Security Council deadline has imposed more urgency on the military preparations, top Pentagon officials said Bush originally ordered the military to have its second wave of forces in place by early to mid-February.

Their report to the president echoed -- without necessarily adopting -- the views of Lt. Gen. Calvin A.H. Waller, the second-ranking officer in Operation Desert Shield, who said publicly last Wednesday that U.S. forces would not be fully combat ready until the middle of February.

Because of the massive logistics involved in moving the second wave of the 430,000-troop deployment to the Middle East, the military has been limited in its ability to expedite the operation, officials said.

"Some forces are ready now," a Pentagon spokesman said yesterday. "We are continuing to deploy others."

While most Air Force and Marine Corps units deployed to the region are now in place, two of six Navy aircraft carrier groups assigned to the Persian Gulf area will not leave the East Coast until Friday and Army troops based in Europe continue to be slowed by weather and other logistical problems, officials said.

Military authorities said the two carriers, the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the USS America, will accelerate their usual steaming time and arrive in the Red Sea area by Jan. 15.

Officials added that the ships would need an additional few days to conduct flight training missions in the region, missions that will be limited during the trip across the Atlantic because of increased steaming speeds.

The six carriers, coupled with a massive Air Force and Marine air fleet, including Air Force B-52 bombers, F-117A "stealth" fighters and Marine Harrier and F-18 jets, could provide air power for an attack by Jan. 15.

But Army commanders, including the top U.S. military leader in the Middle East, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, have warned that the full ground force contingent of more than 250,000 troops should be in place to counter powerful Iraqi ground strength before any offensive is launched.

Commanders also have cautioned that ground troops are not fully prepared for combat the day they arrive in Middle East. It takes several weeks for the large units to organize, acclimate troops to the region and move into their combat positions in the desert.

Those problems also have been factored into the warnings issued by military leaders reluctant to be pushed into combat by mid-January.

Military authorities have been far more cautious in their statements than civilians in the administration throughout the Middle East crisis.

Pentagon officials said Schwarzkopf repeatedly has asked Powell to intercede on his behalf with administration officials to warn them against rushing the military into a combat situation before it is fully prepared.

But Defense Department authorities also concede that military officials invariably complain that they need more time to prepare for combat than political deadlines may dictate.

Administration officials have refused to comment on Bush's reaction to his senior military leaders' reports from the field. But military authorities also say they believe it unlikely that orders could be issued for an attack immediately after the Jan. 15 deadline because it would eliminate the element of surprise military leaders consider so critical to a successful attack.

Some administration officials say they believe the military may be expressing extreme caution now so as not to be blamed if what they consider premature combat produces greater casualties and becomes more protracted than currently forecast.

Cheney and Powell have told Bush that they believe the number of casualties will be reduced if the U.S. forces are fully in place before an offensive is ordered, officials said.

After Waller's Dec. 19 comments, the White house brushed off questions about the readiness of American forces, saying that were there "clear provocation 10 minutes from now, the allied forces are ready to respond vigorously."

Presidential press secretary Marlin Fitzwater suggested then that Waller's comments might be helpful by contributing to a sense of uncertainty in Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's mind about when a strike would occur.