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Tuesday is the beginning of President Bush's third calendar year in office. The new year undoubtedly will make or break his administration in a historical sense.

The Bush presidency hinges on the outcome in the Persian Gulf. If his policy there is successful, George Bush probably will be given a second term by a grateful U.S. electorate. If, however, the adventure in the sands of Arabia comes to grief, Bush doubtless will be defeated in 1992 if he seeks a second term.

But much more than the political career of one man hangs in the balance. The lives of 430,000 U.S. servicemen and servicewomen are in jeopardy. So, too, are the lives of millions of other persons, military personnel as well as civilians, in the Persian Gulf region.

It had at first looked as though the crucial date would be Jan. 15, the deadline set by the United Nations Security Council for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to pull his troops out of Kuwait. Military experts say he cannot meet that deadline. He already would have had to begin withdrawing the massive numbers of Iraqi troops from tiny Kuwait to comply with the U.N. mandate.

But other factors are working to push back the fateful day. On Dec. 19, the deputy commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf surprised the White House by candidly stating that American-led forces in the Middle East will not be ready to attack Iraq by Jan. 15.

Lt. Gen. Calvin A.H. Waller said there was a "distinct possibility that every unit will not be fully combat-ready" until sometime around Feb. 1 or as late as Feb. 15.

Gen. Waller ascribed the delay to the inevitable constraints contained in the process of matching up troops with their equipment and sending them to their field positions in the desert.

The three-star general likened his situation to that of a football coach. He told reporters, "I want everything I can possibly get and have it at my side of the field when I get ready to go into the Super Bowl."

Asked by a reporter what he would tell the owner of the team if ordered to play the game before he had all the players he needed, Waller replied, "If the owner asks me if I'm ready to go, I'd tell him, 'No, I'm not ready to do the job.' "

After Waller's comments were published here, there was a great deal of speculation about whether he had been "put up to it" by higher authority. But the consensus seems to be that he was only stating the truth as he he saw it.

This view gained strength last week. On Christmas Eve, President Bush listened to a report from Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney and Chairman Colin L. Powell of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They had just returned from a five-day visit to the gulf region.

Secretary Cheney reportedly reiterated what Gen. Waller had said. Cheney is said to have told the commander in chief that not all U.S. forces will be in position by Jan. 15. Another senior military officer told reporters that Jan. 15 "was a political deadline created by diplomats -- it has not been the deadline from the military point of view."

The delay, several other officers explained, is caused by the need to move in the second wave of troops. The top U.S. commander in the field, four-star Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, has stressed that the full ground force of some 250,000 troops should be in place to offset strong Iraqi ground strength before any offensive operation is launched.

Other officers have emphasized the importance of bringing the newly arrived troops up to combat readiness. They point out that it takes several weeks to organize, acclimate troops to the region and move them into combat positions.

So, barring some last-minute diplomatic breakthrough or surprise military move, the moment of truth for President Bush and thousands of other persons will be on or around Feb. 15.

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