Meet Gen. H. Norman "Stormin' Norman" Schwarzkopf, supreme commander of the allied forces in the gulf:

He is a conjurer who once belonged to the International Brotherhood of Magicians.He insists, despite his involvement, that "war is a profanity."

He speaks fluent French and German.

His principal pasttimes are ballet and opera.

It was Schwarzkopf, speaking into a red phone in his command center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, who kept President George Bush informed of the progress of the beginning of Operation Desert Storm on Wednesday night and the early hours of Thursday.

And it will be Schwarzkopf, at least until he retires next summer after 35 years in the U.S. Army, who will continue to be in overall charge of military tactics until the war against Iraq reaches its conclusion.

Though there are numerous minor gripes about his personality - his real army nickname is "The Bear," because of his gruff and often downright bad temper - there is an almost universal consensus in the American military establishment that Schwarzkopf, at 56, is exactly the right man to be running the war.

In the words of Gen. Robert Sennewald: "He doesn't suffer inefficiency and mediocrity too well. But if you want someone to lead you into conflict, this is the guy you'd like to have."

His list of credentials seems almost too good to be true: A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, an IQ put at 170, three Silver Stars and two Purple Hearts from two tours in Vietnam, a master's degree in guided missile engineering, and unrivalled military expertise on the Middle East.

He argued as far back as 1983 that the U.S. should be preparing for a war in the Middle East on the grounds that American interests might be compromised by a hostile takeover of one country by another; as a result he drew up contingency plans as thick as a phone book for just such a conflict.

Five days before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Schwarzkopf ran a command exercise for 350 of his staff, rehearsing what would need to be done in such an event.

It all meant that as commander-in-chief (CIC or "sink" in military parlance) of the U.S. Central Command - the country's rapid reaction force - he was the natural choice to be sent to take command in the gulf this past autumn.

He cuts an unmistakable figure there, purposefully striding across airfields and desert camps while a surrounding brace of Special Forces bodyguards in civilian clothes - so that they should not be instantly recognizable - hold M-16 assault rifles with fingers at the ready.

He knows, too, how to speak to troops in their own language; hence the not-altogether apt label of "Stormin' Norman," given to him by the media rather than his colleagues.

"If Saddam crosses that line (the Kuwait-Saudi border)," he told his soldiers in one typical aside meant for media consumption, "I'm confident that we're gonna kick his butt!"

Behind the scenes, though, he is a master politician-soldier of the 1990s. In the five-and-a-half months of the gulf crisis, he has always exuded confidence and pride in the manner of a Patton or a Montgomery; in reality, he has been fighting ferociously to press the Bush administration to apply continual pressure to keep the multinational military coalition intact and under his command.

That it has done so, Pentagon officials say privately, is largely due to the efforts of Schwarzkopf. "He has held the coalition together in almost the way Eisenhower did in World War II," said one. In public he is very careful to defer to his Saudi Arabian counterpart Prince Khalid - technically joint commander with him of the allied forces - but in practice no one questions his authority. The result of such careful diplomacy is the maximum possible cooperation with the Saudis in a sensitive situation where there is much potential for mutual antagonisms and aggravations between rival religions, traditions, armies.

His background is as colorful as his persona. His father was also a Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who played a key role in putting the Shah of Iran on the throne (with, inevitably, the help of the CIA) and then helped train his security forces. Before that, the elder Schwarzkopf had been a swaggering detective who led the investigation into the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's baby. The young Norman spent a year in Iran when he was 12, followed by spells during his formative years in Switzerland, Germany and Italy. He went to West Point and graduated in 1956.

There remains one cloud over his career. In his second tour as a battalion commander in Vietnam, he was in charge of an operation in which several young soldiers were killed by what is known as "friendly fire" - in this case, artillery shells fired by their own side.

The parents of at least one of the dead soldiers blamed Schwarzkopf, and threatened to sue him. The incident became the subject of a book, "Friendly Fire," and even a subsequent television film. Both exonerated Schwarzkopf, as did the U.S. Army's own investigation at the time.

It is a cliche that like all American officers of his generation, the general is haunted by Vietnam. Yet it is probably not so much the memory of the horrors of war that trouble him, although from time to time he has alluded to these if only to reassure the parents and spouses of the men and women under his command that he is not some latter-day Custer.

What really seems to trouble Schwarzkopf is the thought that he may make the kind of gross blunder that the men who commanded him in Vietnam did.

He hinted at it again during Friday's press conference in Riyadh when asked about the number of Iraqi casualties. "I have nothing to say about it," he said. "I am never going to get into the body count business." Body counts, the practice of making detailed claims about the number of enemy killed after an individual action, were the brainchild of Gen. William Westmorland in Vietnam. It has been argued that they led to some of the worst American atrocities against civilians there.

Perhaps because of the "Friendly Fire" episode, Schwarzkopf is keenly aware of his own image, collecting press cuttings and profiles of himself and underlining passages he considers especially relevant.

He is quite capable of assuring reporters that all is well, when in reality he is fighting tooth and nail to unite the disparate American political and military bureaucracies into one common and agreed path of action - not always as easy a task as it may appear. Good public relations, he believes, help instill pride and self-confidence in his soldiers, which, in turn, gives them a winning edge in combat.

Notwithstanding his famously bombastic words - he has told journalists, among many other things, that Iraqi commander are "a bunch of thugs" and their troops "lousy" - Schwarzkopf is a cautious commander. Seven years ago Schwarzkopf was deputy in charge of the U.S. invasion of Grenada, when careful planning meant that deaths were kept to a minimum. "Nobody is more anti-war than an intelligent person who has been to war," he says.

He met his wife Brenda, a TWA stewardess, at a West Point football game 21 years ago and married her eight months later. They have three children, aged from 13 to 20, who have led the nomadic life of the offspring of an ambitious U.S. Army officer.

"He's very much a family man," his wife says. "He cares about people. He cares about his warriors of peace, as I call them, all those wonderful men and women over there. Their safety is his main concern. He talks about it all the time."

As hostilities broke out so dramatically last week, Schwarzkopf found time to phone his wife and family. "Hang in there," he told them.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service