Peace on earth, the Christmas cards proclaim, rather more in hope than in reality. The thousands of holiday greetings from afar to troops are taped or tacked to nearly every flat surface in the American and British military bases scattered across the sweeping Saudi sands.

Images of Santa's cheery grin, the bowed head of the Virgin Mary and of three wise men bound for Bethlehem dot tent walls, ammunition crates, tank turret interiors.In lonely, sandbagged outposts and foxholes dug beside mobile artillery batteries, in mess tents and in machine gun nests, the joyous hymns of the season burst from the shortwave radios that for most troops are the most tangible ties to the outside world.

But the holiday broadcasts Saturday, as on other days, often cut to news bulletins, and soldiers cursed, breaking the emotional spell cast by the music. The news brought no glad tidings. The rattling of sabers prevailed.

A top adviser to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein vowed that the wayward regime will use poison gas and other chemical weapons to defend its claim to Kuwait, the oil-rich emirate overrun by Saddam's tanks in August and since annexed as Iraq's 19th province.

"We will use all weapons in order not to give our country to the enemy," intoned Sadi Maleh Saleh, speaker of Iraq's Parliament. "I say all weapons which we possess."

A British signalman hoisted a cup of Kool-Aid in mock toast. "And Noel, Noel to you, Mr. Saddam."

Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Richard Cheney and Gen. Colin Powell, whose five-day visit to Saudi Arabia is intended in part to deliver Christmas greetings to the 270,000 U.S. servicemen and women deployed in the region, brought joyless tidings.

They said the U.S.-led forces arrayed against Iraq can expect to go to war at any time after Jan. 15, the deadline set by the United Nations for the total withdrawal of Saddam Hussein's occupying legions.

"There will be plenty of jolly," said an Army major. "It won't be Christmas like home, but it will be Christmas."

If nothing else, this will be a rare time, a Christmas celebrated in Saudi Arabia, a Moslem kingdom where the practice of any faith but Islam is forbidden by law. The Saudis have turned a blind eye to the Christmas trees and ham, both banned. They have drawn the line on open displays of religious symbols such as crosses and Nativity scenes, though tinsel and inflatable reindeer are acceptable.

But with war looking them in the eye, melancholy is inevitable among the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who soon may put their lives on the line for a cause that most seem to support but few articulate.