BAGHDAD, IRAQ -- Through a grand arch and down an inaccessible palm-lined driveway lies the presidential palace where the Persian Gulf crisis began.

Inside, President Saddam Hussein decided three months ago to invade Kuwait, shattering thousands of lives and putting Iraq on the edge of war again only two years after ending its grinding conflict with Iran. Now his further decisions there could affect thousands more lives from the Middle East to Europe and the United States.

The gulf conflict has given Westerners a new appreciation of the ruthless powers Saddam exercises from behind the dun-colored walls. But Iraqis have known for more than a decade that their 53-year-old president determines everything important that happens in Baghdad, and that decisions coming out of his palace are the stuff of life or death.

Saddam's personage has suffused Iraqi society so completely that most people here probably accept his explanation that the Kuwait takeover is the exercise of an Iraqi historical right. Marching to the relentless drumbeat of official media, they have largely embraced his refusal to withdraw as defense of the motherland, the Arab world and Islamic integrity.

The Baath Party government's control of the Iraqi population is an important weapon now, when Iraq is fighting a war of nerves with the U.S.-led coalition that demands it leave Kuwait. In waging this war, Saddam is able to manage nearly every element of Iraqi life -- from the news media and politics to communications and transport.

For some Iraqis, support for Saddam has flowed from genuine admiration for his efforts to modernize the country and restore it to a prominent place in the Middle East and the world. With 70 percent of Iraq's 17 million inhabitants under 30, many have known nothing else but Baathist rule in any case.

For others, whose numbers are impossible to gauge in the atmosphere of fear that permeates Baghdad, the president has to be supported because to do otherwise would risk danger from a harsh security apparatus. Whatever the reason, the result is that most Iraqis have joined the team.

"No one can face up to him," complained a disheartened Iraqi professional. "Anyone who faces up to him will be killed."

Abdul Amin Naji, 51, for example, was in an Iranian prisoner-of-war camp from 1982 until 1988. During that time, he said, he was beaten repeatedly and developed a heart condition. Nevertheless, he declared that he and his three sons are happy to resume fighting if Saddam decides on another war.

"They are ready to fight for our country," he said in a conversation at his comfortable home on the outskirts of Baghdad. "We are Arabs, and that is something for us. We are going to challenge the United States. That is our right."

Naji, who founded an import-export business after his return only to see it sunk by the U.N. embargo, spoke during a visit arranged by local Baath Party activists through the Iraqi Information Ministry. Before conversing with foreign journalists, he sought assurances that a ministry official was "responsible" for the encounter.

The Iraqi government has taken care to see that support for Saddam has its rewards. Government employees have received the right to buy such imported goods as televisions, refrigerators and tires at discount prices at official shopping outlets. A government doctor said the privileges grow with rank in ministries or the Baath Party apparatus.

Najiba Tomeh, a 59-year-old widow, became an example of government largesse in another way. When her son, Munthir, was killed during the Iran-Iraq war at the age of 25, the family received a plot of land in a Baghdad suburb, money to build a house on it, a new car and a pension of 180 dinars a month.

"The government did its duty," Tomeh said during a conversation in her salon. From its place high on the wall, a photograph of Munthir looked down on the room, one of the few seen in Baghdad without Saddam's portrait prominently displayed.

Her other son, Nabil, 37, was called back into the army a month ago because of the gulf crisis.

Saddam has taken a personal interest in promoting women's rights in Iraq, according to Manal Younis Abdul Razaq, president of the General Federation of Iraqi Women. Baath Party rule over the last 22 years has been responsible for making Iraq one of the Arab world's most progressive countries for women, she said.

The party, founded by a Syrian Christian who opposed the stultified Islamic rule imposed on Arabs by Ottoman Turks over the centuries, has made incorporation in the modern world a pillar of its ideology.

Partly as a result, women have been able to dress as they like here, in sharp contrast to other gulf countries. Conservative Moslems draped in head-to-toe abeyehs have become used to mingling with young women wearing Western skirts.

Abdul Razaq, whose skirt reached her ankles, laughed that her daughter's barely reaches her knees.

The other day, Abdul Razaq sat in an air-conditioned amphitheater with several hundred other women, listening to a recital by the poet Sajida Mussawi.

The recital was part of a women's federation rally called to protest the Oct. 8 killings of at least 19 Palestinians by Israeli police in Jerusalem. Women turned to each other with murmurs and smiles as Mussawi's poetry touched them with its rhythm and passion.

"Saddam is our key to paradise," Mussawi intoned. "Saddam is a heart and a candlelight, a memory and a tear, land and people, pure water and roses. Saddam is easy, and Saddam is difficult," she went on. "Saddam is all of Iraq."

Despite shortages of raw materials caused by U.N. economic sanctions, work has proceeded apace on a pair of new palaces being erected for Saddam beside the Tigris River. His new residence, with a soft blue dome, has been built beside another grand building, Qaddissiyah Palace, whose copper-covered dome reflects the glaring sun for miles.

Iraqis have been told that they can meet in that palace with Saddam and his ministers and lodge complaints about government services.

This has reminded tradition-steeped Baghdadis of Haroun Rachid, the legendary Arab ruler who walked the streets disguised as an ordinary citizen to take the pulse of his subjects in 8th-century Baghdad.

The connection has come naturally enough. In a museum at the Baghdad monument erected in memory of casualties in the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam was depicted on a map of Iraqi history side-by-side with Rachid in a constellation of other heroes of legend.