THE AIR IN Washington yesterday was cool and fresh, the breeze sufficient to rustle but not disturb the blossoms that suddenly are everywhere, the sunshine glorious in its pre-summer pastels. The air in Baghdad was hot and acrid, tinged as it has been for days with black smoke. Even as life here proceeded to the normal rhythms of a spring Sunday -- church, bagels, the first youth baseball games of the season -- it was impossible to enjoy one without thinking of the other. Families are streaming north from the Iraqi capital in fear of the fighting that lies ahead, while wounded American fighters are flown south. Back home we watch and pray for Iraqis and Americans alike; this is a war that has generated no hatred of the enemy, because we think even of most Iraqi troops as innocent victims of the evil regime that oppresses its population.

The past 2 1/2 weeks of war have brought stirring tales of courage and generosity. Of two American soldiers, forgotten in the desert by some fog-of-battle foul-up, who were far hungrier and thirstier than they might have been when finally rescued because they had shared so much of their food with Iraqi civilians. Of an Iraqi lawyer who risked his life, more than once, and his family, and who abandoned his home and the world he knew, to help bring about the rescue of American prisoner Pfc. Jessica Lynch. Of Miss Lynch's comrades, who were not so fortunate, and of the thousands of other young Americans matter-of-factly putting themselves at risk every day: driving their tanks toward uncertain dangers, showing restraint at ambiguous checkpoints, strapping on parachutes and flinging themselves into the night sky over unknown terrain.

As in any war, the dominant images are terrible ones, of loss and confusion and fear: mothers cradling injured children, families cowering in hallways as bombs fall outside, men searching crowded hospital wards hoping, and hoping not, to find their brothers or cousins or friends. And the fears of battle sit atop the fear of their rulers that Iraqis have lived with for years. Even in the south, where British and American troops hold increasing sway, most Iraqis are frightened and will remain so, in a way that Americans can barely imagine, until Saddam Hussein and his totalitarian structure are vanquished. "Everyone is afraid. Of the militia . . . They have eyes. They film everywhere. And they send the film to the authorities in Baghdad," one 25-year-old whispered to Post reporter Keith Richburg in a village southwest of Baghdad. But he added, "If he goes" -- meaning Saddam Hussein -- "they all will disappear."

This is a war being fought above all to diminish the danger of a dictator or those of like mind in the terrorist world someday using nuclear, chemical or biological weapons against the United States and its allies. But if fought to a successful end, it will have the enormously beneficial side effect of lifting the fear from the Iraqi population. From the exquisite beauty of a Washington spring day, there is not much to do but hope that day comes soon, and express gratitude to the fighters who are hastening it.