BAGHDAD, IRAQ, AUG. 26 -- In a dusty field at sunset today, hundreds of balding Iraqi teachers, white-haired office workers and paunchy professionals practiced for war with America.

Dressed in fatigues and armed to the teeth, they practiced firing mortars. They shouldered powerful new rocket-launchers and charged invisible enemies with unloaded machine guns, shouting all the while such slogans as, "Ask the sky: Saddam is beloved. Ask the sky: We will fight. Ask the sky: Until we die."

Meet Saddam Hussein's reservists -- Iraq's Popular Army -- one of the signs that this city is preparing for war, perhaps against the entire Western world.

It was a publicity event, to be sure, a photo opportunity organized by the Iraqi government for the handful of Western television crews and newspaper reporters who have been permitted to report on the Persian Gulf crisis from inside the nation that lies at the heart of it.

The evening training session of the Popular Army, a paramilitary force run by Saddam's monolithic Arab Baath Socialist Party, helped illustrate the depth of control that Iraq's leader and his political-military machine appear to maintain in this capital of 5 million people.

The omnipresence of Saddam and his Baathist organization is symbolized in the streets. As the visitor arrives, Saddam's first larger-than-life portrait appears on the roadside a few miles out of Saddam International Airport, its right arm outstretched in greeting.

A few hundred feet away, a second billboard emphasizes, in awkward, literally translated English, Saddam's self-image as a son and leader of the Arab world. "Welcome to Baghdad, Capital of Arab Saddam," it announces.

Throughout Baghdad, there are hundreds of Saddam Hussein billboards, some picturing him in uniform and beret, others in a traditional Arab kaffiyeh, still others in a business suit. In all of them, he is smiling and relaxed.

At the Ishtar Sheraton Hotel, where the journalists are staying, a 6-foot portrait of the Iraqi president gazes benevolently upon the lobby. The only hint of crisis is a sign outside the rooftop elevator announcing, "Please be informed that the night club will be closed until further notice."

Outside, in the souks and shopping centers that provide the Iraqis' daily bread, there are few obvious signs that the world's economic stranglehold on Iraq is having an immediate effect.

Most shops were well-stocked with dry goods, canned food and general consumer products, and traffic appeared to be moving normally on the city's broad lanes and boulevards.

Just beneath the surface, though, there was talk of growing hardship. Bread lines were seen in parts of the city, a byproduct of a strict government warning that food hoarders will be executed. There was evidence that the black-market economy was growing. And, in sunbaked Baghdad, where daytime temperatures soar to well over 100 degrees, one of the biggest sacrifices of daily life is ice cream -- the Arab summer staple that requires two key commodities that are running low, sugar and powdered milk.

But there is little evidence of any dissent against an iron-willed president who has kept Iraq in war during most of the past decade. Taxi drivers, shopkeepers and civilians approached on the street all voiced strong support for Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, for his image of defiance and for the tough stand he is taking against the West.

"You can ask any Iraqi and he will tell you that we feel Kuwait is a part of our country that was taken away from us," said Moyat Sayed, 55, an English teacher, who also said Iraq should possess chemical weapons because the Americans and Soviets possess them.

"The mentality is different here," he added. "The Arab people support Iraq's invasion, only some Arab governments don't agree because they don't represent their people."

Perhaps not by coincidence, that is the same line broadcast several times daily on government radio and television and carried in the state-run newspapers in what, taken together, ranks among the world's most comprehensive propaganda machines.

An example was today's edition of the government's English-language daily, Baghdad Observer, which led with the headline: "President Hussein Says U.S. Occupation of Arab Sacred Land Is a Crime." A prominent story reported the government's decision to permit the 55 wives and children of American diplomats stopped here en route from Kuwait to Turkey to leave Iraq. (Three of the 55 were turned back at the Iraqi-Turkish border, news agencies reported late Sunday.)

Throughout the paper, the editors clearly sought to whip up anti-American sentiment.

"Arab-Americans Harassed, Threatened With Death," shouted a front-page headline over an obscure news agency story from Boston about a 41-year-old American of Arab descent who received death threats there. Another front-page story reported on anti-American demonstrations in many Arab and European capitals and quoted a Jordanian Islamic leader as shouting, "Death to America, death to Israel, death to the emirs" -- Kuwait's exiled rulers.

Very little such sentiment seems to have reached Baghdad's grass roots, however. A taxi driver at the airport, for example, asked my nationality.

"American," I answered.

The driver beamed and held out his hand. "America very good. America good. Welcome. Welcome."

Then he paused for a second and added, "Well, America so-so. There are some problems there, but insha Allah {God willing}, they will soon be gone, and we will be friends."

Even members of Saddam's Popular Army took time from their training exercises tonight to explain that the gulf crisis was not yet a confrontation between Iraqis and Americans, but between governments.

Modhaffar Abad, 48, a professor at Baghdad College, leaned his AK-47 assault rifle against his leg and said, in fluent English, that he spent two enjoyable years in New York on a scholarship in the early 1980s. "American people are very friendly," he said.

"Would you now fight America?" Abad was asked.

"In fact, yes," he said.

"Would you kill Americans?"

"If the soldier will come to my country, yes. If somebody should come to your house and try to enter by force, you must kill him.

"And if my friend in the United States is going to be invading my country, I will kill this friend to defend my brother. You are my friend now, but if you are going to take this machine gun and kill me, my brother will use it to kill you. That is the way here."