It's not rising gasoline prices or even the threat of a recession, it's that Iraq's Saddam Hussein has got to be stopped.

"You're darn right we had to do it," said Stuart Belk, 65, a retired bricklayer from Alexandria, responding to the deployment of U.S. warplanes and troops to the Middle East.

"The worst word in the world is 'dictator,' and that's what Saddam Hussein is. What do you think the United States is for, if not to help countries in trouble? We have got to stop this madman," Belk said.

Forty-five years and countless reflections since a land mine took his leg and almost his life in Hitler's Germany, Belk said there are still certain things worth risking lives for.

"Oil is not one of them," he said, pounding his fist on his wheelchair outside the Veterans Administration's nursing home in Northwest Washington. "The reason we should be over there is because we don't stand for dictators. We don't stand for bullies who gobble up other countries."

City and suburban residents, young and old, wealthy and poor who were interviewed supported the U.S. actions. Of the 40 or so interviewed, from a vice president of Smithy Braedon Co., a real estate brokerage firm, to a District maintenance worker, from people pumping gas in Fairfax City to those sitting at lunch counters in the District's Shepherd Park, there was a rare unanimity of opinion.

They said they were willing to conserve on gas, even pay a higher price at the pump, so long as oil companies weren't pocketing extra profits.

No one wants thousands of American men and women in a war zone, they said, yet they would understand if more were needed. Deep in their gut, they said, they knew the U.S. commitment in the Persian Gulf will be long and expensive.

"I wish we had done something in the past" to thwart Saddam Hussein and his million-strong army, said Sarah Cox, a Fairfax County management analyst who lives in McLean.

As she pumped $24.73 worth of Chevron gas into her blue Caprice Classic, Cox said "economic reasons alone" should not justify the U.S. armed forces "charging off like a light brigade."

While she regretted that the United States "sat on its hands until the only solution was a military one," Cox said she understood the need now to stop Hussein.

The sudden invasion of Kuwait eight days ago reminded many how quickly the landscape can change: Saddam Hussein, unknown or confused with Jordan's King Hussein days ago, is now denounced by little children, one mother said; Saudi Arabia was an oil-rich OPEC country to be wary of, not an ally to defend; Iran was more evil than Iraq, not the other way around; and world news was upbeat, as communism continued to collapse.

Now, George Washington University business student Michael S. DeLine said, Americans feel the pressure of being a superpower. "We have a responsibility to do whatever it takes to get Iraq out of Kuwait."

Even if it means a draft? he is asked.

"I don't think it will come to that," but if called, DeLine, 21, said those his age would see it as their duty.

"We can't let some little country wreck the world economy," DeLine said. "All the guys I talked to in the {Sigma Phi Epsilon} fraternity are totally for it; they're backing Bush. It's not just that Hussein took over another country. He took over resources of world importance."

"If this continues, it's going to have a dramatic impact on the way we use our automobiles," said Douglas Fischer, a physical therapist in Silver Spring, who paid 15 cents more a gallon for gasoline on Wednesday than he did last week.

"I wouldn't want to be one of the guys readying for combat," Fischer, 26, said. "And I wouldn't want us over there just because of gas prices. War is never a good idea, but we have got to show support for Saudi Arabia."

While area residents interviewed support the U.S. role as democratic peace-keeper, many said they worry about the costs of that venture. The idea of combat in the deserts of the Middle East is of particular concern, especially to those who fought in previous wars.

"Saudi Arabia and other countries over there must make it very clear -- and not in some back room -- that they want us over there and that they are going to help us," said Clyde Wray, 44, who served as a private in the Army's 199 Light Infantry Brigade in Vietnam.

"We cannot do this alone, again. Hussein's men know the area; he's got {poisonous nerve} gas," Wray said.

"He could blow one of our ships up in the Gulf in a second," said 74-year-old District resident Willie J. Waller. "There are narrow straits, mountains and deserts. It's a dangerous place."

Wray said he's had a feeling that the next war would erupt in the Middle East because "there is a lot of hate and oil over there."

"Yes, Bush did the right thing," the Vietnam veteran said. "But what I'm worried about now is the next step. I hope it's not a misstep. We cannot make the mistake again of taking half-steps, half-measures."

"It's not a small thing to keep up the image of the U.S. as savior," said Richard Rogers, a machine operator in the District. "Isn't that how we see ourselves? As peace-keeper? If we didn't do that, what would we be? Just another country."

Rogers, 42, said that the U.S. image as guardian of democracy also works as a deterrent to terrorists.

If the United States and all its might wasn't viewed as looking out for smaller countries' interests, Rogers said, "things could get completely out of hand. Anybody could do anything. Terrorism would spread like a cancer."

Poor people may be the first to feel repercussions from Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Already, the price of a tankful of gasoline has increased a dollar or two at many pumps in the region.

"This is going to hurt the poor man and the U.S. car industry," Rogers predicted.

"Even if they ration gas, it won't matter to rich people," said Belk, from the VA nursing home. "They will buy it on the black market. But if you don't have much money to begin with, it's going to make a difference."

Gerald Dunn, a federal government employee from Alexandria, said that he believed that most middle- and upper-income families wouldn't even notice the increase in gas prices. Besides, he said, it was a small price for them to pay while the nation defended a "country under attack."

Saddam Hussein, alternatively described as a madman, bully and dictator, drew passionate repudiation.

"No way can we let him get away with this," said Robert Stout, a vice president at Smithy Braedon, referring to the Iraqi president's decision to annex Kuwait.

"Saddam Hussein really scares me," said Falls Church music instructor Joseph Morton. "I fear we have a madman out there and he is not going to stop at Kuwait. These days, all it takes is a nuclear weapon small enough to fit in a suitcase."

"I just hope they stop him quick," said Viola Anderson, a retired hotel employee in the District. "I really feel things could turn terrible, if we don't stop him soon."