On Jan. 17, the day after the Persian Gulf War began, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein declared: "It is a day of a holy struggle against the infidels. It is one of Muhammad's days."

Eleven days later, President Bush said the conflict has "everything to do with what religion embodies, good versus evil, right versus wrong, human dignity and freedom versus tyranny and oppression." He added, "We will prevail because of the support of the American people, armed with a trust in God.

With bombs now pounding the birthplace of three major world religions, religious rhetoric has become a staple of the political leaders' speeches. Saddam talks about Iraq's "holy war" and Bush champions a "just war." So whose holy war is it, anyway?

The answer is neither side's, according to Christian, Jewish and Islamic scholars, as well as other social scientists. The gulf crisis is primarily a political and economic struggle, not a religious one, they said.

"It would be a great mistake to see this as a war between Muslims and Christians or Muslims and Jews," said James Turner Johnson, professor of religion and political science at Rutgers University.

In revving up the religious rhetoric, the two leaders are employing a strategy that is as old as war itself, those experts said.

"When discussing war, leaders traditionally ask, 'On whose side is God?' " said Cathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of communications at the University of Pennsylvania. They do so to motivate and unify their people, she said.

Religious appeals sometimes can be used effectively among Muslims, the experts said, because religious imagery dominates Muslims' everyday life. "Islamic theology is not merely a set of rituals," said Mumtaz Ahmad, political science professor at Hampton University. "It tells us how to conduct our political life, our social relations."

Thus, challenging the "infidels" not only stirs up religious anxieties but also revives painful cultural memories, particularly the colonization and occupation of their lands by Western powers. Saddam's "holy war" inflames Muslim rage, said James M. Wall, editor of Christian Century, "the feeling of being put upon, colonized, manipulated, not being able to stand up on your own."

Americans once were comfortable with elected officials using religious language, Jamieson said, but they're less so today. That's partly because fewer people practice religion than in the early days of this country and are less conversant with that language. Also, the principle of church-state separation has a solid hold on the American mind.

In his speech Thursday, Bush took care to say to the National Religious Broadcasters that the war "has nothing to do with religion per se," and that "the war in the gulf is not a Christian war or Moslem war.

Bush, like Saddam, uses religious slogans with ease. For Saddam, it's something of a stretch since his secular political organization, the Baath Party, "is basically anti-God," according to Amer Haleen, acting secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America.

Bush, on the other hand, was reared in the Episcopal faith and still attends an Episcopal church.

At the National Prayer Breakfast in the District Thursday, he designated today as a national day of prayer, saying he hoped people would pray for peace and for the safety of U.S. troops.

Saddam calls the conflict a "jihad," or holy war fought for a just cause. Bush says it is a "just war," a phrase popularized separately by Roman Catholic and United Methodist bishops.

But several Islamic scholars have raised serious doubts about whether Saddam's invasion of Kuwait constituted a jihad. A true jihad can be called only by a council of religious authorities, they said. Also, such a war "must be undertaken for the sake of Allah, not for power or oil," said professor Ahmad.

Similarly, critics in the United States, including several Catholic bishops, have said the coalition's first strike at Baghdad did not meet all the requirements of a just war, including that war be a last resort.

Jamieson pointed to other ways in which the speeches of Bush and Saddam carry religious overtones. The holy stories of both Christianity and Islam almost always portray ordinary men and women as potentially redeemable even when their leaders are not, she said.

Bush and Saddam have been careful not to vilify each other's populations. Bush has paid particular attention to this. "We do not seek the destruction of Iraq," he told the broadcasters. "We have respect for the people of Iraq, for the importance of Iraq in the region."

He stressed the U.S. intention to minimize civilian casualties.

Waging a verbal war with religious symbols is risky, the authorities said. It blurs cultural similarities that might enhance diplomacy.

Johnson, the Rutgers political scientist, noted that during the current hostility little has been said about the religious principles that Christians, Muslims and Jews share.

All three religions trace their heritage from the prophet Abraham and espouse one God. Like many Christians, Muslims also believe that Jesus's mother was a virgin and that he performed miracles.

Yet the religious imagery being used emphasizes differences, and has the potential to inflame the conflict, particularly if sacred sites -- such as Jerusalem, or Najaf and Kerbala in Iraq -- are attacked.

George Weigel, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who supported Bush's decision to attack Iraq, nonetheless believes any speech that implies "God is on our side" is "an unfortunate use of words."

"The danger is that it will overheat into, 'Smite the infidel,' " he said.

But he also sees a brighter side: "The good news is that use of that language is a persistent reminder that we're under judgment and not everything goes."