Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said Wednesday that U.S. forces are ready to strike swiftly against Iraq if Saddam Hussein does not comply with U.N. inspections.

Force will be the first recourse, Cohen said in an interview. There will be no town meetings, no trial balloons, no lengthy series of warnings and deadlines."The forces that we have in the region are poised at the ready and prepared to carry out a plan that has been well thought out, and, at the order given by the president of the United States, can be executed," Cohen said.

Cohen said military action could come within days rather than weeks if the situation in Iraq deteriorates again. No further force buildup would be necessary. "Essentially the forces we need are there," he said.

Some members of the U.N. Security Council have said the United Nations would have to approve a military strike if Iraq fails to comply, but the United States and Britain say no further approval is needed.

Clinton administration officials have concluded that it would be extremely unlikely that U.N. inspectors could continue working in Iraq after a military strike. Cohen argued, however, that a bombing strike would deal a serious setback to Saddam's war machine.

"If there is not going to be compliance, if there is going to be a flouting of the U.N. resolutions . . . we have to compensate as well as we can by taking down and degrading those systems that provide the greatest threat," Cohen said.

In the absence of inspectors who are charged with keeping Saddam from building biological and chemical weapons, the United Nations also could instigate other measures to increase pressure on Iraq, such as tightening existing economic sanctions or taking other steps to limit Hussein's ability to build weapons of mass destruction, he said.

Cohen said the purpose of U.S. military action would be "not to punish but rather to correct, to compensate, to make sure" Saddam "cannot take advantage of throwing out the inspectors or effectively barring them from inspecting."

"The goal is compliance. We all prefer a diplomatic solution. It is far preferable. A military solution is the last option you want to exercise," he said.

A CBS poll, released this week, found that 51 percent of those surveyed favor immediate bombing of Iraq if Saddam fails to honor the agreement struck by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, while 38 percent opposed bombing.