Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pledged Saturday that the United States would strongly support the international military action to halt Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi’s attacks on rebels, but she made clear that Washington would not be in the lead.

Clinton said French warplanes began flying over Libya on Saturday while she was meeting with 21 other world leaders in the French capital to discuss the crisis in the North African nation.

“Let me underscore the key point that this is a broad international effort,” Clinton told reporters after the meeting. “The world will not sit idly by while more innocent civilians are killed. The United States will support our allies and partners as they move to enforce Resolution 1973,” which the U.N. Security Council approved Thursday.

But she strongly emphasized the support of several Arab countries for the move and said the “people of Libya appealed for help.”

“We did not lead this. We did not engage in unilateral actions in any way, but we strongly support the international community taking action against governments and leaders who behave as Gaddafi is unfortunately doing,” Clinton said.

Her cautious comments reflected apparent concern on the part of the Obama administration about the appearance of U.S. military action in yet another Muslim country, after U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Some U.S. military leaders and analysts say they fear that terrorists could exploit further American military action, painting it as part of a broader campaign against Muslims and using it to draw adherents.

Clinton also appeared to step back somewhat from earlier statements on the scope of the military operation against Libya.

Questioned on whether the mission was aimed at ensuring the safety of civilians or at pushing Gaddafi from power, she said, “It is to protect civilians and provide access for humanitarian assistance.”

Asked whether the situation could be resolved with Gaddafi staying in power, she replied, “Those are all questions that, standing here, are difficult to answer.” But she suggested that foreign military power might not be needed to drive out Gaddafi.

“Certainly, the conditions that will unfold as we begin to enforce this resolution will make a new environment, in which people are going to act, including those around Colonel Gaddafi,” she said.

Clinton said the military actions came after the Libyan government refused to abide by the U.N.-mandated cease-fire.

“Our assessment is that the aggressive actions by the Gaddafi forces continue in many places in the country,” she said. “We have seen no real effort on the part of the Gaddafi forces to abide by a cease-fire, despite the rhetoric.”