A shipment of more than 100,000 current magazines bound for U.S. military personnel in Saudi Arabia was held up yesterday after the Army discovered that special outside covers wrapped around the reading matter included a Camel cigarette advertisement, reflecting financial sponsorship of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., and omitted a military disclaimer relating to tobacco products.

The huge sealift of publisher-donated magazines was scheduled to leave a printing plant in St. Cloud, Minn., this morning and reach the desert encampments after a three-week ocean passage. But on last-minute instructions from the Defense Logistics Agency, which handles such cargo transfers, the periodicals will be delayed at least a week while volunteers from Operation Desert News, the South Carolina organization spearheading the project, hand-stamp the disclaimer on the cover of each magazine.

The disclaimer reads: "This {form of media} does not express or imply an endorsement of the sponsor or its products or services by the U.S. Army or any other part of the federal government nor has it been paid for or sponsored by the U.S. Army or any part of the federal government."

DLA spokesman Lt. Col. Henry Wyatt said yesterday that the cigarette advertisement also would have to be removed from the back cover of all 100,000 magazines before the shipment could leave Minnesota. Operation Desert News organizer Lisa Safford said she had received no such indication officially, but added that "we intend to cooperate in any way we have to to make this thing fly."

Reynolds is, to date, the sole corporate sponsor of the nonprofit Charleston group's effort. Additional corporate underwriting is being sought.

Operation Desert News laid the blame for the snafu at the door of its military handlers. "They never told us," said Safford, vowing not to let the three-month effort founder because of this late-breaking technical foul. Wyatt said the DLA first saw the covers Wednesday and said that "it gave us real heartburn." He added, "They should have run it by us."

The military's sensitivity to the magazine shipments is twofold.

Four years ago, the Department of Defense issued a tougher policy toward tobacco products, describing smoking as "one of the leading preventable causes of disease and death among military personnel." It was this policy that was violated in September when a shipment of 10,000 cartons of cigarettes from Reynolds and Philip Morris Co. was sent to Saudi Arabia without proper clearance -- an incident that has lived on, courtesy of Mr. Butts, in the panels of "Doonesbury."

While the DLA has been enforcing the tobacco policy in Washington, officials of U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida

have been screening the donated periodicals for topics that might be offensive to the military's host population of Saudis -- notably articles and advertisements that refer to the consumption of alcoholic beverages, religious subject matter, and any content that might be considered pornographic.

Absent from the 30-odd magazines in the first shipment to the desert, for example, are copies of the December issue of Life, whose cover story asks a variety of respondents to describe their personal god; a special issue on the U.S. Constitution and Life's November issue were substituted; they represent more than 50,000 of the magazines destined for Saudi Arabia.

Dean Foster, an Operation Desert News spokesman, also said that a boxing magazine had been scratched from the list of approved publications because showing bare-chested men in skimpy shorts is considered potentially salacious in Saudi Arabia.

Not just Islamic sensitivities are involved here. World Monitor, a publication of the Christian Science Monitor, is being shipped separately, and without the RJR covers, because of the parent First Church of Christ, Scientists' well-known proscriptions against tobacco consumption.

Apparently, however, political content has not yet been an issue in Central Command's screening process. The Nation, the venerable progressive weekly, for example, has been given general approval for shipment to military personnel despite the magazine's open rejection of the policy that has put them in the gulf theater of possible war. "We passed without a murmur," the magazine notes in its Dec. 31 issue. The Washington Monthly, the irreverent neoliberal journal, is another periodical on the list. No politically conservative magazine is in the first shipment.

Most of the magazines headed to Saudi Arabia are of a more recreational bent, some of them covering activities bizarrely distant from the opportunities available to the men and women who will read them. In addition to Life they include: Fine Woodworking, Inside Sports, Bowling Digest, Modern Drummer, Baseball Card Monthly, Basketball, Fishing World, Model Railroader, Snow Goer, Ad Astra and Mid-Atlantic Country.

A second shipment is scheduled for a mid-January departure, assuming the magazines can be packaged to the satisfaction of the Defense Department, Reynolds Tobacco and Operation Desert News. This periodical cargo will include Air & Space, Smithsonian, Redbook, HG, Working Mother, Working Woman, Inc. and the Robb Report -- periodicals that Safford says would appeal more to the women in uniform than would the majority of the male-oriented magazines in the first shipment.