Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney flew home from a Persian Gulf tour yesterday saying that "the days are drawing closer" when the United States and its allies might go to war to force Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait.

"Today I see no sign that {Iraqi President} Saddam Hussein intends to withdraw his forces from Kuwait," Cheney told reporters after meeting in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. "Each day that goes by, each week without a sign of Iraqi withdrawal, brings us that much closer to the January 15 deadline," he said. "One has to conclude that the situation is not improving and that the days are drawing closer when we may be forced to resort to military force."

Cheney, who inspected U.S. ground and naval forces in Saudi Arabia and neighboring Persian Gulf countries, said the troops are ready to fight. A senior American commander in the region said last week that ground troops would not be fully ready to launch an offensive war to dislodge Iraq from Kuwait by Jan. 15, the deadline set by a United Nations resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. But Cheney said that "we would be prepared today, if we were ordered today, to take military action."

With Cheney's return to the United States, the Persian Gulf standoff between the United States and Iraq appeared to be settling into an odd holiday lull. Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are scheduled to report to President Bush today about the readiness of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, but no diplomatic meetings or negotiating sessions are scheduled as the United States prepares for its first Christmas since 1972 with large numbers of troops deployed overseas.

U.S. and Iraqi officials have been unable to agree on dates for proposed meetings between Bush and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz and Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. If either side is wavering in the international game of chicken set up by the Jan. 15 deadline, there was no indication of it in the rhetorical cross-fire that marked the end of Cheney's trip.

If war breaks out, Cheney and "those who support him will see how the earth will be burned under their feet not only in Iraq but also in Saudi Arabia and other Arab gulf countries," Lt. Gen. Saadi Tuma Abbas, Iraq's defense minister, said yesterday, according to the official Iraqi News Agency. Iraq has threatened to ignite conflagrations in oil fields throughout the region if attacked by the United States and its allies.

In Cairo, Cheney thanked Mubarak for Egypt's commitment of nearly 40,000 troops to the U.S.-led forces deployed against Iraq. But remarks Cheney made late Saturday in an exchange with a sailor aboard the USS Bunker Hill raised questions about the resolve of some members of the alliance.

Asked who besides the United States would fight to dislodge Iraq, Cheney gave an answer suggesting that this country could count on only three of the 27 nations with forces in the Gulf: Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Britain. Saying that "the ones that really count" are firm in their commitment, he omitted Syria and France from the list.

But yesterday he said he did not mean to imply that Syria and France would not take part in offensive action against Iraq.

"I think it is clear that there are varying levels of commitment in terms of the willingness to use offensive military action," he said. "Each nation has to make its own decision" about whether to be part of a military coalition that began as a defense of Saudi Arabia but could be used to attack Iraq. "I did not mean to exclude anybody," Cheney said.

Syria's role in the Persian Gulf conflict is perhaps the most complicated and contradictory of any country's. Syria for years has been locked in bitter ideological conflict with neighboring Iraq, ruled by a rival wing of the Baath Socialist Party. But it has also been a foe of the United States because of this country's support for Israel.

Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), one of the loudest voices calling for patience and caution in dealing with Iraq, said yesterday that the conflicting pressures on members of the alliance are "one of several factors that have not been very much explored" by the Bush administration in its planning for war.

If Iraq is attacked, he said on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press," Saddam will turn on Israel. "Israel will surely respond," Mitchell said, "and if Israel responds, Syria will probably change sides, abandon the coalition and fight against Israel, and it places great stress on our other partners, Egypt and Saudi Arabia."

Ever since Iraq invaded Kuwait Aug. 2, Saudi Arabian officials have expressed the fear that Israel would be drawn into the conflict, forcing Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria into a politically intolerable de facto alliance with Israel against Iraq.

Mitchell rejected suggestions that he and other Democrats are "undermining" Bush's position in the Persian Gulf by questioning the need for war and insisting that no hostilities commence without congressional review.

"If we didn't say anything, if we didn't raise a question, if we had no debate so as to help the president with this threat, and then he had to carry out the threat and the United States was at war, every one of you and every other journalist in the country, and many Americans, would say, 'Where were you, why didn't anybody ask a question?' " he said.