AHMED AL JABER AIR BASE, Kuwait (AP) _ The F-117 only does one thing _ attack _ and that's exactly the point in keeping stealth aircraft on call next door to Iraq. They send a not-so-subtle message to Saddam Hussein.

On the flight line at this air base about 60 miles from the Iraqi border, Air Force Lt. Col. Gary Woltering, a stealth fighter pilot, explained Monday that the F-117's sole mission is to deliver bombs and missiles to targets.

That capability, he said, is the reason for bringing the planes to the Persian Gulf region.

``We are totally offensive. We don't have any defensive capability,'' Woltering said. ``So Saddam knows when we're brought to the theater it's time to step up to the (negotiating) table. Saddam has backed off, but we're prepared to deploy.''

Behind Woltering at this joint U.S.-Kuwaiti air base stands the black-painted aircraft with its geometric shapes and smooth, composite-coated surfaces. Inside the fighter's bomb bay may be a pair of 2,000-pound laser-guided bombs, or any one of a number of other precision weapons in the Air Force arsenal.

For a plane that's supposed to go unnoticed, the message is direct.

President Clinton ordered the stealth fighters to the region this fall, the second year in a row he has had to do so in response to rising tensions with Iraq.

Last year it was Saddam's military attacks on his Kurdish population in northern Iraq. This time the issue surrounded Iraq's refusal to fully cooperate with U.N. weapons inspections. In particular, Iraq is refusing to allow access to Saddam's presidential palaces, which may be hiding places for biological or chemical weapons or weapons manufacturing equipment.

If it were to come to conflict with Iraq, those palaces might be just the kind of heavily defended target the stealth fighters would be sent to attack.

``We hope there's a peaceful settlement,'' said Woltering, who flies out of Hollomon Air Force Base, N.M. If not, ``Our jets are full-up combat ready. Our guys are full-up combat ready.''

Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni, the overall commander of U.S. forces in the Mideast, says the U.S.'s Arab allies would support strikes in response to an Iraqi provocation, such as firing on coalition aircraft. But they would be far less supportive of a preemptive U.S. strike, or a strike designed to punish Saddam for failure to cooperate with the U.N.

Thus symbolism _ such as high-profile weapons systems like the F-117 _ takes on more importance. The idea, Zinni says, is to deter Saddam from doing anything to provoke a military response and to leave some uncertainty about what that response might be.

Message-sending was also behind the just-completed exercise held by the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit. Zinni, who is touring the Gulf region this week, chatted with his fellow Marines cleaning up their tanks and armored personnel carriers after a 24-day exercise in the desert a short drive from the Iraqi border. The boom of their cannon was almost certainly audible in Iraq.