ST. LOUIS – America's top military brass delivered their message loud and clear to Saddam Hussein on Wednesday: The United States is prepared to go to war with Iraq.
President Bush warned Saddam there will be "serious consequences" for him if the United States is drawn into a war.
"There will be serious consequences for the dictator in Iraq. And there will be serious consequences for any Iraqi general or solider who were to use weapons on our troops or on innocent lives," the president said.
Meanwhile, the nation's top military officer said that the tens of thousands of U.S. military troops gathering in the Persian Gulf could wait for months without losing their war-fighting edge.
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that American forces have the training and flexibility to initiate combat operations at any time.
"We're ready now," Myers said. "The Iraqi regime should have no doubt."
The four-star Air Force general also said without elaborating that "there are some indications of unrest in some of the Iraqi leadership, but just hints." He added that Saddam has not made substantial changes in the positioning or readiness of his military forces, and that lines of military authority showed no signs of fraying.
In Australia the government announced it was dispatching air, land and naval forces to the Gulf region, but other U.S. allies questioned any effort to push quickly beyond U.N. weapons inspections.
French President Jacques Chirac suggested he favors giving the inspectors several more months. "An extra delay is necessary," he said on France-2 television. In Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell questioned whether France was serious about coming to grips with what he called Iraq's deception.
"There are some nations in the world who would like to simply turn away from this problem, pretend it isn't there," Powell said on PBS' NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.
The enormous buildup of U.S. troops on Iraq's periphery -- to exceed 150,000 within a few weeks -- is designed not only to give Bush the option of using force to disarm and oust Saddam but also to heighten the pressure on the Iraqi leader to give up without a fight.
Some have questioned how long U.S. forces in the Gulf region could keep their edge if Bush heeded the advice of allies and others to give diplomacy and U.N. weapons inspections more time to resolve the Iraq crisis.
Myers said the troops could stay ready for "several months, no problem," if necessary. The Pentagon could rotate fresh forces in to replace those who arrived first, if that were needed to maintain their readiness, he said.
Myers also said the onset of hot weather in Iraq this spring should not influence a decision on a possible attack.
"There is no doubt that no matter what time of year, we can fight and prevail in that environment," he said, even if Iraq were to use chemical or biological weapons. The Americans' advanced ability to fight at night gives them a major edge, regardless of heat or cold, he said.
In separate remarks at the Foreign Press Center, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said a war against Iraq could last "four days, four weeks or four months," and that it seemed reasonable to expect that large numbers of Iraqi troops would surrender early as they did in the 1991 Gulf War, reducing the number of battlefield casualties.
Rumsfeld also announced that the Pentagon will begin broadcasting into Iraq its periodic news briefings. That will be done by EC-130 Commando Solo aircraft that can transmit radio and TV signals from the air anywhere in the world.
"To all Iraqis who are listening today for the first time, I say this is democracy in action. It is freedom in action," Rumsfeld said.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, reported that more than 20,000 additional members of the National Guard and Reserve were called to active duty over the past week, pushing the total mobilized to 78,906 as of Wednesday. It was the largest one-week total since the buildup began in December.
Speaking in St. Louis, Bush said that he would prefer to peacefully rid Iraq of its deadliest arms but that he was prepared to go to war if necessary.
"And should that path be forced upon us, there will be serious consequences," he said.
White House officials said the remarks were part of an effort to brace skeptical Americans and U.S. allies for the increasing likelihood of war. Bush also hopes to increase pressure on Saddam himself in hopes of removing him without war, perhaps through a coup or the leader's exile, aides said.
Bush and his senior advisers are struggling to quiet a rising clamor from U.S. allies and other nations to postpone war with Iraq and give U.N. inspectors more time to look for hidden weapons.
Bush has shown little patience with the inspections process, telling the crowd in St. Louis Wednesday that Saddam wants more time to give the "so-called inspectors more runaround."
"Should any Iraqi officer or soldier receive an order from Saddam Hussein or his sons or any of the killers who occupy the high [offices] of their government, my advice is don't follow that order because if you should do so, when Iraq is liberated, you will be treated, tried and prosecuted as a war criminal," Bush said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.