American and British commanders Friday warned soldiers not to eat, drink or smoke in public during daylight when the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan begins sometime in the next few days.

"Guests in the kingdom are expected to be aware of Ramadan, respect the feelings of fasting people and conduct themselves accordingly," said a memorandum issued to U.S. personnel by Central Command in Riyadh.The memo warned personnel not to publicly eat, smoke or drink anything, even water and coffee, and even when inside cars after the fasting month begins.

Ramadan is a movable fast.

It begins on Saturday if the crescent moon is sighted Friday night by at least two men, who must testify before an Islamic tribunal. Otherwise, it begins on Sunday.

It will end 28 or so days later when the crescent is sighted again, signaling the beginning of a three-day feast called Eid al-Fitr, a kind of Muslim equivalent of Christmas during which gifts are exchanged.

Britain's Royal Air Force counseled its officers to be especially aware of Muslim feelings during Ramadan and even warned of possible extra dangers they might face on the roads.

British Capt. C.R. Spink, in routine orders to officers, warned women in the air force that the standard advice to wear long, loose clothing in Saudi Arabia "may not suffice" during Ramadan: They should also carry a scarf to cover their hair if necessary.

The group captain reminded his officers that Saudi Arabia's religious police "always step up their surveillance" during Ramadan and "personnel should therefore take extra care not to draw attention on leaving an expatriate compound."

As he pointed out, "for those who have not experienced Ramadan in the Middle East, it can be a disconcerting time."

For non-Muslims, Ramadan in Saudi Arabia is an austere experience. Restaurants close during the day. Office hours are curtailed. Life slows down and fasting workers can get short-tempered from lack of food and drink during the day. To avoid these problems, many foreigners leave the country on vacation.

The Saudi Interior Ministry, as it does every year, issued a warning that non-Muslim residents working in the kingdom could be fired or deported if they failed to observe local sensitivities during Ramadan.

"The fact that they are not Muslims is no excuse for them," the ministry said.

After allied forces launched the war against Iraq on Jan. 17, Western journalists unfamiliar with the finer points of Muslim practice wondered aloud whether the Islamic practices of praying five times a day, and fasting during Ramadan, might affect Arab troops' performance.

Saudi military spokesman Col. Ahmed al-Robayan gracefully fended off a reporter's question about that when he said: "Our religion teaches us to fight and pray at the same time."

Islam specifically exempts soldiers from Ramadan fasting during wartime, to avoid interfering with their fighting prowess.

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Be careful

"All personnel should be aware of the effects of fasting: in particular, driving tends to become erratic, especially in the late afternoon period!" warned Group Capt. C.R. Spink, commander of the RAF detachment in Dhahran.

Muslim drivers sometimes cause accidents because they are hurrying to get home in time for dusk, when the fast is broken with an evening meal.