BAGHDAD, IRAQ, OCT. 6 -- With their government pitted against most of the rest of the world, the people of this Iraqi capital seem almost deliberately focused on normal life, resisting a personal, emotional engagement in the crisis surrounding them.

Iraqis here publicly express support for government policy, a necessity for survival in this tightly controlled police state. But they show little passion -- and no personal desire to fight the world -- in defense of their government's annexation of Kuwait.

A surprising number of Iraqis, in private conversation with foreigners, express disapproval of the Kuwait invasion and antipathy toward the rule of President Saddam Hussein. But they display lack of interest or hopelessness at the suggestion, made repeatedly during the crisis by President Bush and other U.S. officials, that the people of Iraq should overthrow Saddam.

Americans used to hostility from Arabs at times of U.S. or Israeli conflicts with Arab nations are surprised to find none of it now in Baghdad, even though a U.S. Air Force general spoke last month of bombing the city should fighting break out.

But Iraqis do not seem to anticipate a war. During Iraq's war with Iran, the city often went dark at night, when the government, fearing bombing raids, cut electricity to enforce a blackout. These days, as brightly lit cafes along the Tigris River indicate, there are no particular security measures in Baghdad.

Soldiers with Kalashnikov assault rifles stand outside government buildings and the Republican Guard's antiaircraft guns point skyward from atop the monumental gates to Saddam's palace. But these are the longstanding precautions of a government concerned about subversion or military coups. There have been no air-raid drills.

Iraq is one of the world's most closed societies, and foreigners and Iraqis who try to monitor public opinion in Baghdad concede that theirs is an inexact science. But their impressions coincide with those created by scores of conversations with a variety of Iraqis here in the past 10 days.

The crisis is closing the small economic and political openings that had appeared since 1988, when Iran agreed to end the eight years of warfare that had bled and exhausted both nations. The government freed some areas of the economy for private investment, and officials spoke for the first time of changing the constitution and permitting opposition parties to exist. Only last spring, Iraqis were given general permission to travel overseas for the first time in a decade.

"These two years were our first chance to begin building our country . . . and our own lives," said an Iraqi intellectual here. "All of a sudden, we are back in a crisis, facing another war. I can feel only despair."

Discussions in the West have suggested that the Iraqis might be forced to acknowledge the crisis and even take some action against Saddam by the pressure of the United Nations sanctions that have cut this nation off from virtually all trade. President Bush, who has said that the sanctions slowly are beginning to hurt the economy here, said at the end of August that "it wouldn't disappoint me if the Iraqis got up and said, 'Look, this man is our problem.' "

But two months after the first sanctions were applied, they are no more than an annoyance for the great majority in the capital, according to Iraqis and Western diplomats. The government has instituted rationing for nine basic commodities, such as wheat flour, sugar, tea and oil. But that, according to diplomats who study the Iraqi economy, is largely a precautionary move.

In a grimy radio repair shop in one of this sprawling city's outlying districts, two Iraqis assured a foreign visitor over tea that the sanctions would not force Iraq's government to change its stance on Kuwait. "The only problem so far is a shortage of samoon," the hand-sized loaves of bread that accompany every Baghdadi's meals, said Abu Ali, a middle-aged civil servant. "You have to wait in line with 20 people to buy it, and they are making it with half barley flour instead of all white" flour, he said.

"Now I eat one samoon {with a meal} instead of two," he said. "But this is not a problem for the Iraqis."

Jaafar, the shop owner, pointed his soldering iron at a stack of dusty radio carcasses and said: "I cannot get the parts to repair these. But for some I will make do, and for others, their owners will go without. It is something we are used to, especially after the war with Iran. We will survive if we must eat only bread and onions."

Iraqi intellectuals and foreign analysts do not dismiss such talk, although they say Iraqis will face serious shortages. "We are living off the fat of Kuwait," said one university-educated Iraqi, referring to new supplies of soft drinks, fruits and imported foods that have appeared in Baghdad shops, brought up from Kuwait. "Now it is high harvest season, and there are plenty of vegetables. . . . But they are slaughtering the dairy cows and the egg-laying chickens because there will be no {feed} for them, and when this is all eaten up, life will begin to get difficult."

Embassies here concede they can only guess at how quickly the sanctions are taking hold, largely because most diplomats are confined to Baghdad, with no access to the countryside. Iraq will keep the politically sensitive capital stocked as long as possible, they predicted.

Even when serious shortages become commonplace in Baghdad, which one Western embassy here has estimated will take anywhere from one to six months, Iraqis will prove resilient and will in any case be reluctant or unable to turn resentment over economic problems into action against the government, Iraqi intellectuals and diplomats said. "The Iraqis have had far greater reasons to rise up against Saddam in the past 22 years than the one the world is giving them now," said one diplomat.

While most attention has focused on food, several diplomats said Iraq's far greater vulnerability is in spare parts and skilled labor for critical industries and infrastructure, such as power systems, purification of Iraq's largely saline water supply, and the refining of its oil. "We have heard of them trying to recycle things like industrial fuses, which cannot be done safely and progressively will run down their infrastructure," said a Western diplomat. "But that will be a slow process that may take a year or two."

Given the obstacles to public debate here, precise opinions on the Kuwait invasion are difficult to assess. Iraq's state-run media pushes Saddam's version of the invasion of Kuwait, but Baghdad residents can also follow the crisis via foreign shortwave radio.

"There are plenty of Iraqis who are genuinely happy to have Kuwait and its riches," said one diplomat. "But that is only if it were to come without a lot of sacrifice. Now, I think, the idea is filtering down that the cost of taking Kuwait will be too high." Numerous Iraqis echoed the government stance that Kuwait, once ruled together with part of Iraq by the Ottoman Empire, was unfairly carved away by a British Empire intent on keeping it a dependent state.

"Kuwait in truth is Iraq," said Jaafar, the radio repairman. "Perhaps we will have to fight. But we do not want a war over Kuwait, and, God willing, there will be a peaceful solution," he said.

In conversations with foreigners, other Iraqis disagreed with the invasion. "The Kuwaitis were rich and arrogant and made some problems for us, but under Islam, that did not give us the right to attack them," said a university student, who expressed unhappiness at the prospect of being sent for military service in Kuwait. "We could have settled it through discussions."

While Iraqis seem to want to ignore the gulf crisis, they pay fearful attention to the etiquette of life under Saddam.

The middle-class young men strolling downtown Baghdad's Saadoun Street on Friday window-shopped, debated which Indian film to see or wandered through the park at Liberation Square.

At one intersection, waiting for a light to change, several men watched a drunken man tack across the street toward them, muttering angrily. Two youths gently reached to help him up the curb, when out of his angry monologue popped the name Saddam Hussein. Everyone within earshot flinched as though struck, and strode off, with nervous glances at nearby policemen, lest they be found at the scene of a crime.

In chance meetings with a foreigner where others were present, few Iraqis other than officials turn discussions to politics. Should the foreigner do so, they frequently express a lack of interest in the topic or support of government policy. It is only in private conversations that a visitor hears other views.

"Iraqis are unable to speak among themselves. Many are afraid to speak even to their own sons about the government," said an Egyptian who has lived in Baghdad for several years.

"The government is completely isolated," said an Iraqi intellectual. "Seventy percent of the people hate Saddam. . . . They would prefer to see the devil replace this man," he said. But he conceded that he could only guess at the level of opposition to Saddam, based on the feelings of people he knows and judging by who has gained and who has suffered under Saddam.

While popular attitudes toward Saddam are kept veiled, Baghdad's view of Americans seems remarkably obvious and positive. An American man walking in the streets is greeted with the polite salutation of those who have studied English in Iraqi schools: "Hallo, mistair!"

American culture remains an object of interest and approval, from state television broadcasts of Heathcliff the cat and Casper the Friendly Ghost cartoons to the assertions of numerous Iraqis that American cars are better than Japanese.

Iraqis, including many government officials, appear embarrassed by the government's holding of Americans and other foreigners hostages -- and especially by the official title given them as "guests of the Iraqi people." In scores of conversations, no Iraqis except for Information Ministry officials referred to the hostages as "guests" with a straight face. Ridha, a music shop owner whose offerings include cassettes of Madonna, apologized for the use of the word. "A guest is someone very important in our culture, someone to be honored -- not someone to keep in chains."

Some Iraqis who were critical of Saddam also reproached the West for its long-time support of him.

"The Western countries made a lot of money selling weapons and chemicals to Saddam during the {Iran-Iraq} war. But in those years, and even after the war, you did not raise your voices about how he treated his own people. Now, he is still a problem for Iraqis, but he has become a problem for you, too."