The U.S.-led coalition against Iraq took final shape just hours before American and allied planes began attacking targets in Iraq when France announced that its troops would act under American command for "predetermined missions" to liberate Kuwait.

The French decision meant that all key members of the multinational coalition that sent forces to the gulf had agreed on a framework for command and control for the joint military action.

Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney said that the air forces of the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait took part in initial attacks against Iraqi targets. A Saudi official in Washington said 150 Saudi warplanes were involved.

Shortly after the attacks began, U.S. NATO Ambassador William Taft was quoted by the Reuter news agency as telling an emergency session of the 16-nation Western alliance in Brussels that "Iraq can still avoid further destruction by unconditional, immediate and complete withdrawal from Kuwait."

The French move followed the collapse earlier in the week of a last-minute peace initiative by France and represented an extraordinary show of solidarity by a European country so prideful of its sovereignty that it has refused for years to join NATO's military command structure.

As the military effort against Iraq continues, orders for troops from each of the 16 nations represented in the multinational combat force will be issued by the commander of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, although some will be deliberately passed through Saudi hands before reaching front-line Arab soldiers.

This arrangement is designed to skirt potential political problems stemming from the placement of Syrian, Egyptian and other Arab forces directly under U.S. command, adding to the appearance of a military contest that primarily pits U.S. troops against Iraqi troops. Top Saudi officials agreed in November to give Schwarzkopf responsibility for commanding Saudi forces in military operations on Kuwaiti territory.

The deal "allows everybody to say what they want to say," said a diplomat close to the crisis. "People who are sensitive to being under an American plan can say they are under Saudi control. But military people know whoever has the largest forces commands the other forces."

The U.S. share of the total combat force deployed in Saudi Arabia has increased from 57 percent to 69 percent since early November, when President Bush announced a near doubling of U.S. forces in the region from 230,000 to more than 430,000. British and French troops have also been doubled since then, to 25,000 and 10,000 respectively, but forces from Moslem nations have grown only slightly.

The principal Arab forces now in Saudi Arabia include 45,000 Saudis, 30,000 Egyptians and 17,000 Syrians. Additional forces are expected to arrive later this month.

The uneven balance of these forces drew substantial criticism during last week's congressional debate over authorizing the administration to initiate a war. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said, "If there's a war, 95 percent of the casualties . . . will be American."

Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who returned last week from touring U.S. military facilities in Saudi Arabia and talks in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, complained not long before the allied air strikes began that "from a distance, it's the world versus Saddam Hussein," but up close, "we're a one-man band. It's our kids, as the drumbeat of war starts."

Top administration officials have repeatedly said they are satisfied with the level of foreign military participation. But senior U.S. military officials say that the plan for a ground war has been crafted so that U.S. forces assume the bulk of the combat responsibility, arguing that to do otherwise would place U.S. lives at the mercy of other nations' military forces.

Knowledgeable officials say the war plan calls for a so-called "Arab contingent" -- of Saudi, Egyptian and possibly Syrian forces now deployed near the Kuwaiti border -- to begin the ground war by engaging entrenched Iraqi forces in Kuwait; U.S. and European forces now deployed farther south would then swiftly reinforce, and possibly move ahead of, these Arab troops.

The arrangement is another bow to regional political sensitivities, which dictate that U.S. forces cannot be the first to cross the Kuwaiti border despite their greater firepower and proficiency. Although Syria has not formally agreed to commit its troops to an offensive against Iraq, several senior U.S. officials and Arab diplomats said they expect such a commitment shortly.

Boxer said Mubarak told her that Egyptian forces would not be willing to go into Iraq, and other congressional sources say that Saudi and Syrian ground troops may also be unwilling to take such action.

British and French ground forces are to be given so-called "tactical areas of responsibility" for combat, according to several U.S. military officials. British troops will be commanded by the U.S. Army at the western edge of the front, while French troops will be commanded by U.S. forces to the east.

In announcing France's decision, President Francois Mitterrand declared that military action against Iraq is now legitimate after the passing of a U.N. Security Council deadline calling for Iraq's unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait. He said it was "inconceivable" that France would not join the United States, Britain and other international coalition members in forcibly terminating Iraq's occupation.

"The hour has come for us . . . to apply the principles we stand for," he said in a written message to legislators, who overwhelmingly approved the government's terms for military engagement in the gulf.

France and Britain are the only European allies that have committed ground troops to the multinational force. Italy's government asked parliament to allow its small naval and air contingent in the gulf to participate in any military action, but a vote was not expected until late Thursday. Italy has sent five warships and 10 Tornado fighter-bombers to provide air cover for the armada.

In Australia, Prime Minister Bob Hawke announced at a news conference that he had authorized his country's three warships to take part in the offensive against Iraq.

Most NATO countries, including as Germany, Spain and Belgium, have offered only logistical support for the offensive but are bound by the alliance's treaty to come to the defense of fellow member Turkey if it is attacked by neighboring Iraq.

While Britain has closely meshed its military operations with the United States and placed its troops under American command from the outset, the status of the 10,000 French troops in Saudi Arabia had remained ambiguous because France has insisted on maintaining an independent military command ever since former president Charles de Gaulle removed the country from NATO's defense planning 25 years ago.

French military doctrine holds that only the president is empowered to send forces into war and that French soldiers can take their orders only from French officers in the national chain of command.

But yesterday, Prime Minister Michel Rocard acknowledged the necessity of maintaining key military operations in the gulf under a single American command when he announced that French forces would be placed under U.S. authority for "predetermined missions" that would be restricted to certain targets and a certain length of time.

Those missions, he contended, would strictly involve "the liberation of Kuwait, the use of force to do so and the understanding that, in order for Kuwait to be freed as needed by force, it could be necessary to destroy military targets in Iraq, neighboring Kuwait."

But Rocard said the military objectives of French forces under American command would end there. He said France's military policy in the gulf "is not a declaration of war against a people, it is not a wish to destroy a state. It certainly does not authorize a preferential choice for civilian targets."

A senior U.S. defense official in Washington expressed some dissatisfaction with the French agreement, noting that "it's not as clean and clear as {the arrangement} with the British."

The French parliamentary vote, which was moved up a day when Mitterrand decided to convene the session only hours after the ultimatum expired, resulted in a margin of 543 to 43 in favor of the government policy. Most of those opposing came from the extreme left, mainly Communist deputies who have never accepted the dispatch of French troops to the gulf.

Drozdiak reported this article in Paris, and Smith in Washington.