Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, told a congressional delegation during a recent briefing in Saudi Arabia that he wants to keep Iraqi forces in Kuwait on a constant state of alert, so that they use up spare parts for sophisticated equipment and sap the energy of their frontline troops, congressional sources said.

President Bush's statements that he will be ready to use force shortly after the United Nations' Jan. 15 deadline for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait is part of this tactic, according to congressional and administration sources.

The sources said that this may explain why Bush and his aides repeatedly have threatened that they might use force in January, even when confronted with statements by American military commanders that U.S. troops will not be fully prepared to take the offensive before sometime in February.

According to a source at Schwarzkopf's meeting with the congressional group, the general told them that "if we were going to attack in a few weeks, we don't want them on alert. But if we are not going to attack for months and they stay on alert, their equipment will be run down by then."

Schwarzkopf's statement made an impression on the group because he had also indicated he was not prepared to take the offensive until well after the Jan. 15 deadline.

On Nov. 22, Schwarzkopf met one-on-one with Bush during the president's Thanksgiving visit to Saudi Arabia, and a week later the general told a Los Angeles Times interviewer that time was on the side of the anti-Iraq coalition. "If the alternative to dying is sitting out in the sun for another summer, that's not a bad alternative," he said in the interview.

The implied conflict between these statements by Bush and Schwarzkopf illustrate the problems created by the war of words underway between Washington and Baghdad, where almost every message sent to Iraq bounces back to cause a different, and often adverse, result in the United States.

The task for Bush and his administration is to convince Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that war is a credible option to force him out of Kuwait, but that task is made more difficult because Bush must then deal with the American public's response when he makes such threats.

The dilemma is illustrated by a public exchange over readiness to attack in January, particularly if the president's position is designed to support Schwarzkopf's desire to have Iraqi forces on alert in the weeks after Jan. 15.

American public opinion paid little attention to the effect such remarks had on Iraqi forces, and focused instead on what appeared to be a president pitted against his military commanders.

While American ground, air and naval forces regularly have been conducting exercises and moving their bases, Iraqi troops have tended to dig into fixed positions. Forward-positioned Army and Marine units often pick up their tents and equipment and move to new locations so they cannot be targeted by Iraqi guns. U.S. commanders would like to see Iraqi ground troops doing the same thing.

In addition, U.S. and allied aircraft fly regular training missions, sometimes approaching the Saudi-Kuwait border before turning away in hopes of eliciting Iraqi responses that might tell them about Iraqi air-defense radars and interceptor aircraft.

Lacking a credible threat, however, Iraqi forces do not respond to such actions, thereby keeping their tactics secret and preventing their equipment from running down.

U.S. commanders see an opportunity to change that when the Jan. 15 deadline passes and Iraqi forces must go on full alert and accept the possibility that any U.S. or allied military movement could be the real thing.

Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came close to describing the Schwarzkopf alert strategy during his Dec. 14 appearance before the House Armed Services Committee.

Questioning Powell, Rep. Dennis M. Hertel (D-Mich.) noted that he had been part of a congressional delegation meeting with Schwarzkopf in which the general "told us that no spare parts are getting in, and therefore the Iraqi forces are weaker because they're having to use their tanks in exercises and maneuvers against us. . . . And the same with flying their planes at sorties against us."

Powell responded by confirming that military spare parts were not coming through but added: "I'm not sure how serious that suffering will be if they are not faced with a military threat. You don't need a repair engine for a tank if that tank is just sitting there parked as a pillbox because it's not in danger from being attacked.

"So while it is true," Powell continued, "that you are denying repair parts and other consumables to the Iraqi armed forces, it is not clear that, in and of itself, {this} will cause that force to be seriously weakened if they don't have to train and keep their combat edge up because they have been given a guarantee -- for some long-extended period of time -- nobody's going to bother them."

Another apparent conflict from the war of words comes out in a different fashion when it focuses on the length of time that Bush can permit U.S. forces to remain in position while waiting for economic sanctions to force Iraq to leave Kuwait.

The president repeatedly has stressed that time is running out, but Powell in his Dec. 14 congressional testimony disclosed there was more flexibility in the U.S. military position than Bush had implied.

"The president will have that option {to go to war} in the very near future," Powell stated. But he quickly added that if Bush "makes the political judgment not to use {the military option} because it isn't necessary because, you know, he wants to give more time to the situation, we can manage that."

"There will be tough choices ahead as to how to sustain that level {of forces}," Powell said, "but those choices are still ahead. We don't have to make them now; there are no problems we can't handle for the foreseeable future. And as we get into early next year {1991} and we take another look at the correlation of forces, we might be able to make some adjustments that makes our problem a little easier to handle."

Powell also took on the well-publicized argument that U.S. military forces would have to be employed before the end of March because bad weather takes over in the desert afterward.

"We're not going to go to war based on weather forecasts," he said. "There are ways to work around the weather whenever we would conduct the operation. . . . Weather cuts both ways. When the clouds come in, the temperatures drop so you lose a little overhead observation but you gain lower temperatures."

Saddam has launched some of his own missives in the war of words -- with mixed results.

When he unexpectedly released American and other Western hostages early last month, the Iraqi president said he was doing so because U.S. opponents to war had begun to organize and Bush had had to temper his approach.

In Washington, however, Bush and his top aides immediately took credit, saying it was the near doubling of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia that caused Saddam to change his mind about holding hostages.

More recently, the Iraqi president has called a meeting of elements of the Arab League to raise the threat of possible terrorist actions should U.S. forces attack. Until now, according to intelligence sources, Saddam apparently has kept terrorist elements under his control from moving against the American forces in the Persian Gulf area who would be relatively easy targets.

However, U.S. embassies around the world have been subjected to obvious surveillance by Iraqi and other Arab groups during the past few months in an operation that intelligence sources said is an apparent threat of future terrorist attacks under Saddam's order.