Scenes of returning soldiers from Iraq being greeted at the airport by their small children and family members warm our hearts this Christmas.

These veterans, who have sacrificed so much in protecting our freedoms, will tell you that there's no greater gift this Christmas than being together with their families.

But even with the windup of American military operations in Iraq, the words "peace on earth" which we hear repeatedly for Christmas, now has more urgency than ever. Two problem spots on the international map North Korea and Iran loom large and continue to be areas of great concern heading into 2012.

North Korea, currently mourning the death of its leader Kim Jong-il, is a nuclear country with an active military of over 1.2 million. Successor to Jong-il appears to be his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, which the Korean Central News Agency has called "a great person born of heaven." The newspaper of the ruling Workers' Party also stated that Kim Jong Un is "the spiritual pillar and the lighthouse of hope" for the military and the people."

The U.S., Japan and South Korea, however, hold a much different view. Many believe that Un, just in his 20s, is even more volatile and unpredictable than his father.

With the announcement of Jong-il's death, South Korean and United States troops were immediately placed on high alert. South Korea's president urged his people to remain calm while his cabinet and the parliament convened emergency meetings.

"The sudden death of Kim Jong Il has plunged the isolated state of North Korea into a period of major uncertainty," said Sarah McDowall, a U.S. senior analyst.

Another danger spot that carries dangerous implications in 2012 is Iran. On a CBS News report last night, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said Iran could have a nuclear weapon within a year and if they do have a hidden facility somewhere, it may be even sooner.

Panetta said Iran's development of a nuclear bomb would pose "a red line" for the U.S. and Israel and that we will deal with it." When asked what steps the U.S. would be willing to take in order to prevent a nuclear attack, Panetta said all options would remain on the table and that "we will take whatever steps necessary to stop it."

Panetta pointed out that Israel's isolation in the region continues to grow, and consequently, "the pursuit of a comprehensive Middle East peace has effectively been put on hold."

We must remember that even though our military campaign has ended in Iraq, many Americans still remain in harm's way. There are about 16,000 people working for the State Department at the embassy in Baghdad and other consulates throughout Iraq, at least 5,000 of which are private security contractors.

There are 28,000 American troops stationed in that very tense border region of South Korea.

This year, America has had as many as 101,000 troops in Afghanistan. One year from now, a third of that total is expected to be coming home in a phased withdrawal similar to what we've been seeing in Iraq.

The words "peace on earth" in our prayers and songs this Christmas have never had greater meaning or importance for the human race.

By Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com