IN his meeting with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tareq Aziz yesterday in Geneva, US Secretary of State James Baker III sent a clear message to President Saddam Hussein about the harsh conflict his country faces if it refuses to bow to international pressure and quit Kuwait. Mr. Baker made plain that the international force ranged against Iraq represents the most massive international military venture mounted since World War II. Barring a few elements, it will be battle-ready by deadline day.
The force has a lethal cutting edge of United States and British elements, and enjoys the backing (though in some cases little more than symbolic) of a wide range of air, sea, and land power provided by the coalition's 24 other members.
A compilation of figures drawn mainly from official coalition sources indicates that the planned total strength of the force on Jan. 15 will be 676,000 troops, 3,600 tanks, 1,700 aircraft, and 149 warships.
If war breaks out, by far the largest part of the burden will be carried by the US. Two-thirds of the troops, more than half of the tanks, and three quarters of the aircraft set to be deployed by the deadline will be American. Only in ships is the US making a minority contribution, with a little more than a third of the total.
European defense experts say, however, that the international force's heavy US contingent will help to correct what might otherwise be a weakness: the very complex command arrangements for the force as a whole.
Col. Andrew Duncan, a Middle East specialist at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, said: ``The US and to a lesser extent Britain will provide the main strike power if there is a war. They will work together very closely and be able to focus the allied effort.''
Other national units would have a looser command structure.
British and US officials speak privately of ``the allies'' (meaning their own two countries) and ``the coalition.'' By the latter, they mean the other nations - informally headed by France - which are not part of a fully integrated command structure and seem unlikely to play a major role in ground fighting.
The case of France typifies the intricacy of command arrangements. French President Fran,cois Mitterrand has ordered a total of 10,000 troops and 40 tanks to the Gulf region. But the troops, including 2,000 members of the famous Foreign Legion, are deployed on the extreme western flank of the combined international forces in Saudi Arabia.
They are mainly light infantry and, according to British and US officials, are unlikely to be used extensively if a bruising tank war develops.
Gen. Michel Roquejeoffe, leader of the French force, consults with Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and Gen. Khaled bin Sultan, the US and Saudi commanders, but takes his orders from Mr. Mitterrand in Paris.
GEN. Peter de la Billi`ere, Britain's commander in the area, is directly under General Schwarzkopf, but, after consulting with John Major, the British prime minister, would retain a right to veto a US instruction.
The situation in the air is more straightforward.
The early stages of a war would consist largely of aerial bombardment of Iraqi positions. Defense sources here say that under an ad hoc arrangement, the US, British, Saudi, and French air forces will be under American command and will share targets. Even so, the numbers suggest an operation heavily tilted toward reliance on US air power.
Britain will have 60 combat aircraft available, France 50 and Saudi Arabia 190 - a total of 300, compared with 1,450 planes soon to be deployed by the US.
British officials speak resentfully - but privately - of the apparent reluctance of European Community countries other than Britain and France to commit substantial forces.
Germany's Chancellor Helmut Kohl has said his country's Constitution forbids it from committing forces outside the NATO area. He has promised to press for a constitutional amendment.
In the meantime, the Bonn government agreed last week to send 18 fighter aircraft to Turkey (a NATO member) to help defend it against a possible Iraqi attack. That decision caused an uproar in Germany's opposition Social Democratic Party.
British officials say any attack on Iraq will consist of two main elements: a sustained series of air strikes involving US, British, French, and Saudi planes; and a probable advance by tanks and other armored vehicles against the Iraqi defenses, involving US and British units.
Unlike the Bush administration, which has been reluctant to forecast the eventual cost of military action in the Gulf region, the British government has warned of the financial implications.
At the New Year, Norman Lamont, chancellor of the exchequer, said taxes might have to go up and public spending be curbed to pay for the British effort. Mr. Lamont said that the Gulf operation had already cost 480 million ($910 million). The costs of a war were ``very uncertain.''
``Clearly, it could affect tax revenues, and it could also affect public expenditure,'' he said. Cash reserves for meeting unexpected contingencies were under pressure.