Secretary of State James A. Baker III in high-level talks next week in Saudi Arabia will try to untangle the complex issue of command of the multinational armies encamped there, whose effectiveness in any war could be hobbled by differences in language, weapons and tactics.

Administration officials in Washington and knowledgeable sources preparing for Baker's arrival in Saudi Arabia said the "command-and-control" issue will be among the most important items on Baker's agenda because it directly affects the credibility of the U.S. military buildup in the campaign to roll back Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

"It's not {yet} a serious command-and-control setup -- it's coalition stuff," said a longtime Pentagon official involved in the day-to-day management of Operation Desert Shield. Troops from more than 15 countries are now in Saudi Arabia. U.S. forces could find themselves in war fighting beside Syrian soldiers in Soviet tanks, or Saudi, Egyptian, French and British troops who are trained to fight with different weapons, using different tactics while communicating in different languages and codes. There are questions about whether the French will agree to offensive operations at all, and whether Syria would fight under any arrangement in which its military commanders would be taking orders from U.S. generals, officials said.

Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams twice in recent weeks has said the command structure for the more than 300,000 U.S. and allied forces in the region is not settled.

President Bush and Saudi Arabia's King Fahd have agreed to consult on any decision to go to war. In the meantime, the mission of the multinational force is to deter and defend against Iraqi attack.

Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region, works in tandem with Saudi Lt. Gen. Khalid bin Sultan, who commands all Saudi, Arab and other multinational forces.

Administration officials say that while this arrangement looks good on paper, a combat effort -- should it come -- must be consolidated under one overall commander, preferably Schwarzkopf since he is a veteran battlefield commander, and heads the largest element of military power in the region. But the Saudis up to now have insisted on maintaining sovereign control over any armed forces on their territory.

One Pentagon official said that Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, continues to give serious consideration to recommending that U.S. forces be placed under a U.N. command, but only if there is clear and well delineated recognition that Schwarzkopf must function as the war-fighting commander if conflict breaks out.

"I have always thought that we should make Khalid the commander and make Schwarzkopf his Number Two," said Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "People will understand that when the shooting starts, Schwarzkopf will have a lot of authority to move quickly on his own, while constantly reporting to Khalid." Aspin said it would be "insulting" to Saudi sovereignty and political sensitivities to insist that Schwarzkopf be placed in command of all forces there

Six weeks ago, Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney expressed strong public confidence that the United States was satisfied it had worked out a command arrangement that respected Saudi sovereignty and also reserved autonomous authority for the U.S. military to act if attacked. Now, Pentagon officials no longer express such confidence.

Cheney is said by aides to believe urgent new questions about integrated military operations arise because of large contingents of Syrian, Egyptian, French and British forces, which will soon number more than 150,000, compared with 210,000 U.S. troops.

Another concern attributed to Powell by this official is whether the Arab forces that are being factored into U.S. contingency plans for war are sufficiently trained and ready for combat. The reason for Powell's concern may be that the Egyptian and Saudi troops could be assigned key ground combat roles in any assault on Iraqi troops in Kuwait, one source said.

Staff writer David Hoffman contributed to this report.