HOUSTON, DEC. 10 -- Secretary of State James A. Baker III urged Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze today to commit a token Soviet troop contingent to the multinational force in the Persian Gulf, but Shevardnadze said the Soviet Union could not do so, informed Soviet sources said tonight.

In meetings here dominated by discussions of the Middle East, Baker told Shevardnadze that even a small, symbolic Soviet military commitment would enhance the credibility of the threat against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, one of the sources said.

However, Shevardnadze replied that public opinion in the Soviet Union would not allow President Mikhail Gorbachev to make such a deployment. Shevardnadze recalled for Baker the criticism he received from the Supreme Soviet, the parliament, following his U.N. speech suggesting the use of force to drive Iraq from Kuwait, and he indicated that while the Soviet leadership supported the goals of the anti-Iraq alliance, it could not now send soldiers to the Arabian peninsula.

At the same time, however, Soviet officials said Shevardnadze continued to express Moscow's support for the effort to pressure Saddam, and he discussed with Baker other possible Soviet initiatives to help as Baker prepares for a critical visit to Baghdad.

U.S. officials confirmed that Baker and Shevardnadze had opened two days of talks here with a discussion of the Persian Gulf, but did not provide details. The two also discussed a U.N. Security Council resolution now being negotiated in New York calling for an international peace conference on the Middle East, an idea the Soviets have strongly advocated.

The Bush administration was criticized last week by congressional Democrats who said the forces arrayed against Saddam were overwhelmingly American and that U.S. troops would suffer disproportionate casualties in any armed conflict. Democratic members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee urged the administration to broaden the military forces so that other nations would share more of the burden.

Previously, the Soviets have refused to commit troops to the region. In the view of U.S. analysts, this is in large part because of the trauma of Moscow's disastrous decade-long combat experience in Afghanistan, and also because of increased tensions at home over Gorbachev's reform program, which has unleashed new ethnic and economic conflict that has riven the military.

Earlier today, Shevardnadze expressed interest for the first time publicly in emergency food assistance from the United States, and Baker indicated that the Bush administration would like to be helpful. The Soviet Union has solicited emergency food supplies and credits from several European nations but had not previously asked the United States for such assistance.

Speaking to reporters here, Shevardnadze was questioned about what kind of economic aid Moscow would most like to receive from Washington, and he answered: "Probably some food supplies. . . . That is the most acute problem."

However, Soviet officials said tonight that Shevardnadze had not brought a formal request for food aid to today's meetings. They said he was expressing "appreciation" for offers of assistance.

Baker noted that legal restrictions imposed during the Cold War remain in place, limiting U.S. aid to the Soviet Union. But he added, "As far as humanitarian assistance, medical assistance, food assistance and that sort of thing, I know the president will be very forth-

coming. . . . "

During their meetings here, Baker and Shevardnadze are also expected to wrap up the final details on the strategic arms treaty that President Bush and Gorbachev promised to finish by year's end. Moreover, Shevardnadze, touring the Johnson Space Center here with Baker, predicted the two foreign ministers will reach agreement on a joint U.S.-Soviet approach to settling the war in Afghanistan.

For months, both sides have been inching toward a statement on Afghanistan calling for a mutual arms cutoff and urging a transition process toward free elections under the auspices of the United Nations and the Islamic Council. But the effort to reach agreement has been stymied by differences over the precise nature of the "transition" authority and on reluctance of the U.S.-backed rebels to join in any arrangement.

A State Department official said "there's a pretty high probability" of an agreement, but said it would involve "a lot of warm and fuzzy talk about the virtues of a transitional process" rather than specifics on a transition.

Shevardnadze will meet with Bush on Wednesday. Administration officials said the president is considering proposals to provide trade benefits, medical supplies and technical assistance for the Soviet energy industry and foster a more permanent relationship between the Soviet Union and international lending institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

In Washington, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Bush has on his desk a decision paper on whether to waive the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the 1974 Trade Act. The amendment bars normal trade benefits to Moscow because of its restrictive emigration policies.

Recently, the Soviet Union has removed traditional restrictions on emigration and permitted hundreds of thousands of Jews to leave, and this has triggered a reassessment of administration policy. Bush had earlier demanded that the Soviet parliament pass a bill codifying these liberalized emigration practices before he would waive the Jackson-Vanik amendment.

But officials have said the president is now considering a temporary waiver -- even though the emigration bill has been stalled -- because Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union has been at extraordinarily high levels. Leading Jewish groups have also urged a waiver.

Such an act would clear the way for Bush to offer Moscow credit guarantees to purchase American grain, a move farmers in the United States have been seeking.

According to senior U.S. officials, there is still a debate within the Bush administration about the practical effect of providing food assistance to the Soviet Union, which seems to have ample supplies overall but is struggling with a collapse of its distribution system that has created severe shortages in some cities.

Gorbachev received more than $10 billion in commitments recently from Western European nations for food and credits to buy food. European officials have described this aid as a stopgap measure to help Gorbachev through the winter and through a difficult transition process from a centrally planned economy toward a more market-oriented one.

While Bush and Baker have said they need Gorbachev's support for their foreign policy goals and are inclined to help him, many analysts question whether U.S. food is the proper form of aid, wondering whether it could be effectively distributed. Some high-ranking administration officials have argued that providing food aid now would only reinforce the central authorities, prolong the transition to a market economy and fall prey to corruption and black marketeering.