With just three weeks left until the deadline for Iraq's unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait, Saddam Hussein shows no sign of wavering and has called the United States the source of all evil and hatred in the Middle East.

The Iraqi president made the statement Tuesday as U.S. soldiers in the Persian Gulf region tried to make the best of a Christmas Day muted by the prospect of imminent war.Some troops watched video greetings from far-away loved ones and feasted on turkey with all the trimmings. Religious observances were low key in deference to the Moslem orthodoxy of Saudi hosts.

Comedian Bob Hope was to visit the Marines in the northern Saudi desert Wednesday. U.S. military authorities have barred media coverage of Hope's shows, saying they don't want to provide the Iraqis with fodder for propaganda. (See story on A2.)

An Israeli newspaper reported Wednesday that Saddam would meet with Secretary of State James Baker on Jan. 9 for high-level talks that have been delayed while the two countries bicker over appropriate dates, but the State Department denied the report.

Although there has been "almost daily contact with the Iraqi Foreign Ministry . . . there has been no movement" on the selection of a date for a meeting between Baker and Saddam, a State Department spokeswoman said in Washington.

Also Wednesday, an official of the Palestine Liberation Organization threatened to stage terrorist attacks against U.S. targets worldwide in the event of war against Iraq.

"American interests in the world will be targeted and suicidal attacks will be launched in and outside the gulf and Palestine," said Zeid Wehbeh, PLO representative in Lebanon.

In a speech to Jordanian politicians visiting Baghdad, Saddam said Tuesday that he wouldn't leave Kuwait until the "liberation of Palestine."

"Let all the fleets and Israel hear, Palestine comes first and it must be liberated," he said. The speech was broadcast on Iraqi state radio.

The United States has rejected linking an Iraqi pullout from Kuwait with the Palestinian issue.

The Iraqi president also reiterated his claim that Kuwait is a part of Iraq that was unjustly removed from Baghdad's rule by British colonial rulers.

Saddam challenged the United States, Britain and other Western powers massing in the Persian Gulf to put the question of Kuwait's future to an Arab referendum:

"Why do they not hold a referendum to see the inclination of the majority of the Arab people?" Saddam asked.

He denounced "the United States and its allies on the international level; that is, all elements of evil, hatred and deviation, as well as its agents in the Arab homeland."

That was evidently a reference to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Morocco and other Arab nations in the 26-nation, U.S.-dominated multinational force of 400,000 troops that has massed in the region to challenge Iraq.

The U.N. Security Council has given Baghdad until Jan. 15 to unconditionally pull out of Kuwait, which it conquered on Aug. 2, and restore the government of the emir of Kuwait.

After Jan. 15, the Security Council said, the multinational force may use military force to liberate the emirate.

The Saudi-based Arab News newspaper has been running a "K-Day" countdown showing the number of days Iraq has until the deadline - now down to 21.

The paper wrote in its Tuesday edition:

" 'Twas the night before `K-Day'

and all through Kuwait,

no Iraqi was leaving;

they had sealed their fate."

But U.S. forces may not be ready on K-Day.

President Bush was told by his defense secretary on Monday of a widespread consensus among U.S. commanders that their units in the Persian Gulf will not be ready for war with Iraq until February, The New York Times reported Tuesday.

The 300,000 U.S. troops sent to Saudi Arabia under Operation Desert Shield marked Christmas - Day 140 of the deployment - with a bittersweet mix of holiday cheer and homesickness.

Santa made several appearances. He reached the 1,000-bed hospital ship Mercy after the AWACs surveillance planes spotted a low-flying object and reported that it was "a sleigh, pulled by deer and driven by an old man."