President Clinton, laying the groundwork for possible air strikes against Iraq, said Tuesday that Saddam Hussein has used chemical weapons against his own people and has lied to the United Nations about his weapons of mass destruction.

"It is obvious that there is an attempt here based on the whole history of this operation since 1991 to protect whatever remains of his capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction, the missiles to deliver them and the feedstock necessary to produce them," he said.Clinton said a diplomatic solution was still the preferable outcome. But he said Iraq must agree "and soon" to full, unfettered inspections of suspected weapons sites.

Clinton said United Nations inspectors have faced "lies, stonewalling, obstacle after obstacle after obstacle."

Unless Saddam is deprived of weapons of mass destruction, Clinton said, "Some day, some way, I guarantee he'll use the arsenal."

Saying he still hopes for a diplomatic solution, Clinton said it must be "a genuine solution and not simply one that glosses over the remaining problem. A diplomatic solution must include a clear, immutable, reasonable, simple standard: Iraq must agree, and soon, to free, full and unfettered access to these sites anywhere in the country."

In Baghdad, Iraq pledged Tuesday to make "all serious and legitimate" efforts to peacefully resolve the crisis over U.N. weapons inspectors.

A statement issued by Saddam Hussein's Revolutionary Command Council said Iraq hopes U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will "come here with an open mind and free will" to conduct negotiations. The Iraqi leadership did not offer any specific concessions that might avert a U.S. military strike.

The statement - a clear appeal to Annan not to be influenced by the United States - was issued just before Clinton delivered his address.

"Iraq will exert all serious and legitimate effort to bring the mission of (Annan) to a success in his forthcoming visit to Baghdad," the council's statement said. It said Iraq hopes Annan will be "in a situation that will enable him to reach a balanced political solution."

With more U.S. ground troops headed to the Persian Gulf region, Clinton and his foreign policy advisers are trying to persuade Amer-i-cans to support an air attack on Iraq if Saddam doesn't bow to U.S. demands on weapons inspections.

Clinton spoke at the Pentagon after being briefed on the preparations. His speech was broadcast live.

"Let there be no doubt we are prepared to act," the president said. "But Saddam Hussein could end this crisis tomorrow simply by letting the weapons inspectors com-plete their mission."

Defense Secretary William Cohen said Monday he had signed orders that would send 5,000 to 6,000 more troops from armor and helicopter units to Kuwait.

That would bring U.S. ground forces there to about 10,000, including about 1,500 troops who are on maneuvers in Kuwait, and 3,000 soldiers from Fort Stewart, Ga., who got their orders Monday to deploy. More than 25,000 U.S. troops are in the Persian Gulf region, along with 320 aircraft and two aircraft carriers.

National security adviser Sandy Berger, who will join Cohen and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Ohio, also planned to address Middle East and European citizens by satellite.

At the United Nations, meanwhile, Annan was unable to win agreement among the five permanent Security Council members to endorse a personal mission to Baghdad to negotiate an end to the crisis.

Meanwhile, six more U.S. F-117A stealth fighters arrived in Kuwait Tuesday as part of preparations for possible strikes against Iraq, a U.S. embassy official said.

Six of the radar-evading planes have been in Kuwait since November, shortly after the crisis erupted.

Bahrain - part of the 1991 gulf war coalition - said Tuesday it will not allow the United States to use the island as a staging area for any air strike on Iraq.

Also Tuesday, Russian President Boris Yeltsin reiterated his view that diplomacy should be exhausted to persuade Iraq to fulfill the resolutions of the U.N. Security Council. "The use of force is the last option and a highly dangerous one," he said.