The continuing buildup of American forces in the Persian Gulf and the increasingly heated rhetoric emanating from the White House point to the likelihood that the United States will soon be waging all-out war against Iraq and Saddam Hussein.

How often, after all, can President Bush denounce the Iraqi leader as "Hitler"; how often can he proclaim he has "had it" with the treatment of American hostages and not follow through?We are told the purpose of both the buildup and the bluster is to intimidate Saddam. It seems much more likely, however, that the actual purpose is to prepare Americans for a U.S. offensive.

Before our soldiers are marched off to combat that could exact extremely high casualties, Bush ought to give the American people precise and compelling answers to a number of crucial questions.

What will we win in exchange for the sacrifice of thousands - perhaps scores of thousands - of American and Arab lives?

Early in August, when the first American troops were dispatched to the Persian Gulf, we were told their mission was to prevent an Iraqi attack on Saudi Arabia. That threat faded long ago.

What do we expect to gain in return for throwing our economy - and the rest of the world's - into a tailspin?

Since the beginning of the U.S. military intervention, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has dropped by nearly 500 points, and the price of gasoline has increased by about 35 percent. But it isn't Saddam who has cut off sales of Iraqi oil; we've done that with our embargo.

If it comes to war, today's oil prices will look like a bargain. If the Middle East oilfields are destroyed or severely damaged, the economic impact will be catastrophic. What will we be getting in return?

Is Saddam the world's only aggressor? Is he the only one the United States will be called upon to stop or just the first in a long line?

To be sure, Saddam was wrong to invade another country and depose its government. But remember that the United States has done the same from time to time (most recently in Panama and Grenada).

Are we prepared to go to war against China for what it did in Tibet? Against Turkey for its military rule in Cyprus? Against Indonesia for its brutal occupation of East Timor?

Is Iraq the only country that can't be trusted with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons? What about Pakistan, India, Israel and South Africa?

Those aren't all the questions I have, and I'm sure other Americans have many more. And that brings to mind another question: If Bush is about to take us into war, aren't we entitled to some answers first?