NORTHERN SAUDI ARABIA, DEC. 3 -- Saudi troops will be on the front lines in any ground attack to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait, according to a senior Saudi military commander. A Western diplomat added that the Saudis will also join in any air war against Iraq.

"We believe that if our {U.S.} friends are here to shed their blood for us, the least we can do is to put {our} forces right in the front," said Prince Khalid bin Sultan, a Saudi lieutenant general and commander of the Arab forces gathered here. "And if there is any bloodshed, I can assure you, Saudis will take it before their friends."

A Western diplomat said the Saudis are making similar statements in private. "If there is a war, they will go over the border first, they will insist on it," the diplomat said.

The Saudis also want to take part in the first wave of air strikes if war breaks out, the diplomat said. In the past few months, the U.S. and Saudi air forces have done much more combined training than have the ground forces, Saudi and U.S. officials have said. "The U.S. and the Saudi air forces are {now} totally integrated," the diplomat added.

The comments by Prince Khalid and the Western diplomat underlined that the Saudis expect to be involved in key military operations in the early hours of a war against Iraq. But it is likely that some key decisions about command and control of U.S. and Saudi forces and how the troops will be deployed have not yet been made.

Prince Khalid, 41, who graduated with honors from the U.S. Air War College at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Ala., and earned a master's degree in political science from Auburn University, insists on his troops taking front-line positions, even though it could mean thousands of Saudi casualities. U.S. military officials say the Saudis might be able to hold out for three or four hours before they would be forced to fall back into U.S. lines.

Khalid acknowledged that previously "Saudi Arabia never got involved in a serious battle." But "if anybody touches my land or there is any order by his majesty {King Fahd}, you will see vicious soldiers who will do their job well. That I can promise."

One striking divergence between statements by Saudi and American officers centers on a factor that is going to be crucial in the early stages of any conflict: how long and how hard the Iraqi forces hunkered down in Kuwait will fight.

The Americans, perhaps planning for the worst, say the Iraqis will be difficult foes. Saudis say they don't think the Iraqis will put up much of a fight. "I'm sure of that," said a top Saudi officer, citing what he called low morale and poor supply lines among the Iraqis. The Saudis say they already have received at least 300 defectors from Iraqi lines inside Kuwait.

Asked to explain this difference in American and Saudi expectations of the Iraqis' war-time performance, another Saudi replied: "We know {the Iraqis} better" than the Americans.

A practical test of command and control of Saudi and U.S. forces took place here in the desert at dusk Sunday as Gen. Saleh A. Muhaya, commander of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd 8th Armored Brigade, climbed into one of his U.S.-made M-60 tanks along with U.S. Army Capt. Sean MacFarland of Ft. Bliss, Tex.

To their right stretched a line of about 40 Saudi tanks. To the left, providing cover for the Saudis' southern flank, were about the same number of Bradley Fighting Vehicles operated by the 2nd squadron of the U.S. 3rd Armored Cavalry Brigade.

Muhaya moved his Saudi line forward, guns ablaze, in a training assault on a distant hill. "Tell them to reduce speed," Muhaya said at one point.

"Request you continue movement at reduced speed," MacFarland radioed to the Americans.

Neither Muhaya nor MacFarland has been in a war before, but they say they are getting ready for one.