The Pentagon warned Saddam Hussein Thursday that U.S. air power will be ready to attack Iraq by Jan. 15 - even if all ground forces are not ready for war by that U.N.-imposed deadline for him to withdraw from Kuwait.

The statement came from a top aide to Defense Secretary Dick Cheney the morning after a senior U.S. commander raised eyebrows by saying American ground troops might not be ready to fight Iraq until a month or more past the United Nations deadline. The commander also said he would urge President Bush not to order any attack until the full U.S. deployment was ready for war.Cheney spokesman Pete Williams said Cheney "was not displeased" by Lt. Gen. Calvin A.H. Waller's candid assessment.

Still, Thursday's statement by Williams and other comments by senior military officers appeared designed to give the deadline more teeth to counter any interpretation of Waller's remarks as possibly undermining Bush's demand that Saddam meet the deadline or risk attack.

Williams said Cheney would not reach a conclusion on

the readiness of U.S. troops until the end of his five-day trip to Saudi Arabia, and would not, as Waller did, share with reporters his advice to Bush.

But Williams said not having all ground forces fully ready for combat did not mean the American-led forces deployed against Iraq could not initiate hostilities to free Kuwait.

"The air part of the force, for example, reaches its level of readiness earlier than the others," Williams said.

And the three-star officer in charge of the Army forces, Lt. Gen. John Yeosock, took a far more aggressive posture than Waller, saying: "I'm ready today for whatever mission I'll be called upon to perform. My perspective is,`Saddam get out of Kuwait or be prepared to face the consequences.' "

Speaking privately, a senior Pentagon official agreed that Waller went well beyond Cheney and other senior military officials in discussing the U.S. deployment. But this official said Saddam should not interpret Waller's remarks as an extension of the Jan. 15 deadline, from a military standpoint.

"This ain't no break for Saddam Hussein," the official said.

Cheney and Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were in daylong meetings Thursday with senior American and Saudi commanders. They met Wednesday with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and over dinner with Prince Sultan, Cheney's Saudi counterpart.

In his blunt remarks Wednesday, Waller, second in command of Operation Desert Shield, said American troops might not be ready until well into February and that if asked by Bush to launch an attack sooner his answer would be: "No. I'm not ready to do the job."

At the White House, press secretary Marlin Fitzwater brushed aside Waller's appraisal of the troops' readiness.

"What he really said is they might not be as ready as they would like to be for all the contingencies," Fitzwater said. "We are assured they will be ready to do whatever they are called upon to do."

Other officers in Saudi Arabia said Waller's remarks might undermine diplomatic efforts that center on convincing Saddam he must comply with the deadline or risk a U.S.-led attack.

Cheney fired Gen. Michael Dugan as Air Force chief of staff in September after Dugan talked openly of the likelihood of bombing certain Iraqi military and economic targets if hostilities began.

"We supposedly want Saddam to take this deadline seriously, don't we?" said one officer.

But Waller said, "What is so magic, why does it have to be that on Jan. 15th we must be ready to go and initiate hostilities at midnight on the 16th?

"I would say to the president and the secretary as well as to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that until our full complement of forces are on the ground that we should not initiate hostile activities," he said.

The three-star general said he believed Bush was aware of the readiness timetable and would not order an attack until ground commanders said they were ready.