The Soviet Union yesterday expressed strong support for the U.S.-led attack on Iraqi positions in the Persian Gulf even though Washington had refused its request to postpone the bombing just before war erupted so President Mikhail Gorbachev could make a final plea to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to back down.

The Soviet reaction was typical of that of countries around the world, many of which said they were saddened that hostilities had erupted in the 5 1/2-month-old crisis but recognized that use of force was the only way to drive Saddam's forces from Kuwait. Gorbachev gave a national address to "express our deep sorrow that military confrontation could not be averted."

Only a few countries openly condemned the bombing raids; Cuba and North Korea denounced it, and Iran bitterly complained that the gulf war could benefit Israel. Pope John Paul II called the war a "grave defeat" for the planet and the World Council of Churches, which represents more than 300 non-Catholic churches in more than 100 countries, deplored Washington's decision to attack Iraq, calling it "a sad moment in history."

The air strikes also drew hundreds of thousands of demonstrators into the streets of cities around the world for marches and sit-ins to protest the war. Anti-American demonstrations broke out, for example, in Berlin, where some 20,000 protesters shouted "No Blood for Gasoline," and there were protests at the U.S. Embassy in Montreal as well as at American missions in other cities.

Other people, however, cheered the U.S.-led attacks, even if their governments did not. China, the only one of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to abstain on the resolution authorizing force against Iraq, expressed "deep anxiety and concern" over the fighting and urged restraint. But there was much support from ordinary Chinese and at Beijing University.

Students and faculty there led the 1989 Chinese democracy movement crushed by the army. Yesterday, professors drank beer in celebration. "This is one way for the people of Beijing to enjoy the defeat of a corrupt dictator and to celebrate the victory of justice," said one teacher.

Allies of the United States not participating in the hostilities, such as Japan and South Korea, strongly supported the action, as did governments with forces involved in the war, such as France and Britain. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl expressed support for the coalition, but promised Germans that no German soldiers will be sent to take part in the gulf war.

The European allies, meeting in Paris, rallied behind the military drive to oust Iraq from Kuwait but also reaffirmed their political differences with Washington by proclaiming firm support for an international conference to forge a new security order in the Middle East after the war is over. Washington and Israel have in the past opposed such a conference.

European foreign and defense ministers agreed that while Washington takes charge of the military campaign, the European Community should concentrate on developing a political strategy that would attempt to eliminate sources of instability in the Middle East.

On the immediate conflict with Iraq, however, they closed ranks with the United States, branding Saddam's regime "responsible for the outbreak of hostilities."

Italy's Parliament authorized the country's small air and naval contingent in the gulf to join U.S.-led attacks against Iraq, and the Netherlands placed its three warships in the region under U.S. command, as did Canada.

The Soviet Union said it was not critical of the United States despite its failed effort to launch a last-minute peace effort.

Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh told legislative deputies that after Washington notified Moscow of the bombing raids, an hour before they were to begin, Gorbachev instructed him to contact Bush "immediately to ask him not to go ahead with this military action and to allow for additional time to undertake a last attempt to influence" Saddam.

Gorbachev, Bessmertnykh said in remarks televised in Moscow, wanted to warn Saddam that if he did not withdraw, "Iraq will be hit because we have information to this effect from absolutely trustworthy sources."

Telephone communications to Iraqi officials were down, and Foreign Ministry spokesman Vitaly Churkin said the Soviet ambassador could deliver the message to Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz only after the bombing of Baghdad had begun. The ambassador, Viktor Posovalyuk, gave the message to Aziz in a military bunker, Churkin said, adding that Saddam was not present.

The message demanded an immediate withdrawal from Kuwait and said, "Unfortunately, we could not stop the military action. . . . We believe it is absolutely vital that you announce immediately the beginning of a withdrawl of troops from Kuwait."

Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Belonogov said Secretary of State James A. Baker III called Bessmertnykh, the new Soviet foreign minister, at home at around 2 a.m. local time (6 p.m. EST Wednesday) informing him that the United States planned to attack.

"While we naturally pay tribute to the fact that we were informed ahead of time by the Americans, it would have been better and easier if had come a little earlier," Belonogov told reporters.

The Kremlin put its forces in the southern Soviet Union on alert, Tass said.

Japanese, who had been following the crisis with seeming indifference for months, became riveted to events in the gulf as the media presented a picture of sweeping initial success for the U.S.-led force.

Japanese snapped up extra editions published by all national newspapers and gathered under umbrellas in a chilly rain downtown to watch electronic news tickers. National television networks, as in the United States, went to round-the-clock war coverage.

Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu expressed "resolute support" for the allied show of force, but the government, which earlier pledged $4 billion to the gulf effort under pressure from Washington, evidently underwent another indecisive day of debate on how and when to increase its contribution.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the strikes against Iraqi targets triggered street protests by pro-Iraqi Moslem demonstrators in several countries, but generally the effort to dislodge Saddam's forces from Kuwait appeared to be supported.

Kenyan Foreign Minister Wilson Ndolo Ayah seemed to sum up the feeling of many in Africa when he said that while the Kenyan government "regrets" the outbreak of war, he hoped the United States and its allies could finish the military effort quickly.

Most of Latin America watched the fighting in Iraq and Kuwait with an eye toward the price of oil, which dropped despite expectations that it would rise with the onset of hostilities. In Argentina, which became the only country in the region to send forces to the gulf three months ago, President Carlos Menem rejected a request to withdraw the two warships. Said Menem: "Argentina is at war."

Neutral Switzerland said it "regretted deeply that the efforts of the international community of peoples . . . could not prevent an armed conflict," while Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Romania all voiced support for the effort to free Kuwait.

Post correspondents David Remnick, William Drozdiak, Marc Fischer, Eugene Robinson, Lena H. Sun, T. R. Reid and Neil Henry, as well as the Associated Press and Reuters, contributed to this report.