BAGHDAD, IRAQ, NOV. 17 -- After listening to the Voice of America one morning, Sizar, an Iraqi librarian with two children, taped all her windows out of fear that war will break out and provoke the use of chemical weapons.

"I listen to VOA every morning, and I got so tense one day that I sealed every window in the house with tape. I hate war, and I don't believe in it, but the Iraqis are stuck now. They can't retreat and they cannot go on like this," she said over a drink at a social gathering.

"I have two daughters, aged 9 and 7. I worry about their future, not mine, and think maybe we should not have had them," she added.

Sizar's reaction does not seem typical, however. Most of the Iraqi artists and intellectuals who gathered here to meet with a visiting foreign journalist and people interviewed at the racetrack and around town displayed a kind of hard-headed toughness when asked whether they had any apprehension over the massing of hundreds of thousands of foreign troops near their border.

Few deny that Iraq would be better off without the crisis, but many remain supportive of their leader Saddam Hussein's arguments and his vision for settling regional problems. And everybody blames the United States for the escalation toward war.

Whether they love him or fear him, Saddam is the awe-inspiring strongman here, the man who controlled his ungovernable people, successfully nationalized oil and carved out a place for Iraq in the world.

"My brother was killed with the Kurdish rebels in 1979, but sometimes when I feel low and angry at the world I feel {Saddam} is protecting the country. If something happens to him, people will kill one another in the streets. I really feel this way," Sizar argued passionately.

"If Saddam goes, no one knows what will become of Iraq," echoed her husband.

"No one's 100 percent {good}, but he's done a lot for the country. I do think he is an exceptional man," said ceramic artist and painter Nuha Radi, a fiery woman who returned home last July after exhibiting her work in Abu Dhabi, London and Washington.

"We are defiant, we will not kow-tow, and the West thinks we must be more servile," she said. "Everyone wants to break us. I can't say I am for this invasion. But it's a fait accompli now and someone has to compromise.

"No one will budge an inch, so why should we move?" she asked.

Among Baghdad's middle and upper classes, there appears to be a consensus that their country did not really need to take over Kuwait and could have acted differently to press its claim for the Rumaila oil fields and Bubiyan and Warba islands. But on one issue -- the threat of war from the United States -- there was absolute harmony among those interviewed.

"Why did the Americans have to interfere?" asked a professor of literature here. "If we were an African country taking over another African country, no one would have opened his mouth."

"If a snake bites you, don't you crush its head with your shoe?" asked Mazen Zahawi, who worked as Saddam's interpreter for eight years until 1987.

Madad Jalal, a clerk, interjected, "They wanted to strangle us economically. . . . I am going hungry now, though I come from an old established Iraqi family, but I support my president until the end. I live among the people now and that is how many of us feel."

"Wrong brings about punishment; it is poetic justice," observed Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, a leading novelist and writer who added that Iraqis do not sympathize with Kuwaitis as a people who have lost their homes by force.

Some Iraqis refuse to accept that war with the United States could ever happen. Others dread it in silence and privately, and some openly concede anxiety about it. But life goes on in an almost surrealistic way in Baghdad. People go to work and keep longer hours than usual.

They go to the races, attend concerts and plan for weddings and receptions at hotels where foreign "guests" held here against their will wander through the same dimly lit halls.

But Iraqis themselves are forbidden to travel out of the country in times of war. They could not during eight years of war against Iran and have been barred from leaving since the invasion of Kuwait, except in exceptional cases.

Many realize that the hostility against them is so intense that they would not want to be abroad anyway. "I feel trapped. Can we really go outside and tell people we are Iraqis? Will my papers be accepted for publication?" asked a geologist educated at Stanford.

"Iraq is not Saddam Hussein. Not all Iraqis are doing what he is doing, yet being Iraqi is a stigma now," Afaf, 38, an employee at a shipping firm, said during her lunch break.

Although some said they dislike Saddam's decision to hold hundreds of foreigners hostage, they all linked it to the American buildup in the gulf.

"I believe if it were not for them {the hostages} we would have been hit," one housewife said. "Why should the United States accept a fight for other Arabs? Maybe I am being selfish. Apart from losing their freedom for now, they are living normally and their presence is keeping us alive. They are several hundred and we are 18 million people."

"People are very afraid, but they don't dare say it. How can anyone wish for his own destruction?" whispered Khalida, 19, a high school student serving coffee in an office in Baghdad.

"Iraqi citizens are dizzy with fear, but they are downtrodden and overwhelmed," a middle-aged father of seven admitted as he lined up for bread. "I would rather wash dishes anywhere in Europe than take all of Iraq dipped in gold."

The price of a loaf of bread has gone up from 5 fils to 25, and Iraqis, accustomed to white bread, are scraping by with hard, dark bread. Many households now bake their own so they can sift the rough flour. Eighty percent of all cultivated land has to be planted with wheat and anyone who owns a plot of fertile land is exempted from military service and gets enticing tax breaks if he farms it.

Surveying the Arabian horses about to start off the races at Baghdad's Horsemanship Club, Fares Hazem Namik turned his gaze to the sprawling city of towering, stylized buildings and hordes of weekend gamblers rushing to place their bets.

"People here don't quite grasp that there is a possibility of war," he said, shaking his head. "I am an architect. Why build all these beautiful things? God created all this for what? For his glory?" Namik spoke furtively, in a country where candid conversations do not come easily.

For Iraqis at the races, the only priority is the pleasure of the moment. "Yesterday is gone, tomorrow has not come, we only have today," Namik said, quoting from Omar Khayyam.

A spectator, suggesting somewhat obliquely that his views were different from the average Iraqi's, dodged a question on whether Iraq should pull out of Kuwait to avert the threat of war. "What is Kuwait and what does my opinion count anyway?" he shrugged.

Started by the British some 50 years ago, when Iraq was under British mandate, the Horsemanship Club now has 3,000 horses -- all Arabians. About 15,000 Iraqi men from all walks of life flock here three times a week to bet, earning the government 250,000 dinars a day -- about $1 million at the official rate -- according to Adib Najib, vice president of the club and a retired military officer.

Some come in suits and ties, others in flowing dishdashas and sandals, chain-smoking, drinking beer and poring over lists to try their luck, seemingly oblivious to the higher stakes their country is risking.

The seven television sets installed in a shaded rotunda do not carry news on the gulf crisis, but race information and results. As we spoke, No. 14, Minwat Mohammed -- Mohammed's Wish -- came prancing ahead of the others.

"They come to lose," Namik said. "You lose in the hope of winning something. But there is always an atmosphere of fantasy here. Just watch their faces," he explained as the spectators drowned out his words in a tumultuous uproar, leaping on top of their benches, some to cheer, others to protest.

The more privileged -- engineers, businessmen, retired officers -- view the races from balconies and terraces as waiters fuss around their tables. Hamid Rubai, who owns four horses and an auto repair shop, has been coming to the club for 40 years. "Everything that has risks in it is nice," he said. "When I look at a beautiful animal I feel good. My passion is horses.

"We are not afraid even if something were to happen. We had eight years of war with Iran and the races never stopped for one day."