Tears fell and meetings stopped, malls emptied and restaurants drew quiet, telephones hummed with calls to loved ones and thousands of televisions glowed in private and public as the reality of war in the Middle East rolled across metropolitan Washington last night.

Long anticipated, the bulletins from afar numbed nonetheless, spawning anger, determination, optimism and a rising fear that the conflict would soon land close to home, in the guise of terrorism. Many rallied to their president; many were appalled.

"Please, Mama, please, Mama, tell me it's not true," Linda Thomas said as she called home from the Silver Spring Metro station seconds after hearing that war had erupted in the Persian Gulf, where her boyfriend is stationed. "I can't believe this," she cried, racing to catch a bus, "I can't believe this. What if I lose him?"

By this morning, some were feeling a bit less anxious about the situation, many having spent the night watching television reports of the apparently successful air strikes on Iraq.

Joe Clark was optimistic as he walked through Metro Center on his way to work downtown. "This shouldn't take too long. It's going to be over quicker than I thought," said Clark, 52. But, he quickly added, "It's also very depressing. I was a Marine, and I know the feeling when you're that young and you have to think about dying."

Reaction to the fighting came almost immediately. Within minutes of the war's birth, crowds began to gather outside the White House, circling and praying in a steady downpour, opposed to the action by the United States to evict Iraq from Kuwait.

"Shame, shame, shame," some began to cry. Later, the atmosphere turned angry, and some of the demonstrators skirmished with police. Fourteen protesters were arrested.

But at VFW Post 9616 in Morningside near Andrews Air Force Base, veterans and their wives joined hands and began singing "God Bless America" as President Bush finished his televised speech, announcing the nation's plunge into all-out war.

Outside the post, a sign that had read "We Support Operation Desert Shield" was quickly changed: "We Support Operation Desert Storm."

Such support seemed widespread this morning at the Vienna Metro station, where many commuters backed Bush's action. "I'm kind of glad we went over there," said Mark Kirley of Vienna. "I hope we're not in there like another Vietnam. I hope we get in there, kick some butt and get out."

As Bush spoke last night, not a glass clinked at J. Paul's restaurant in Georgetown. Not a dinner was served. Hardly a sip was taken.

As two televisions glowed with the Oval Office news conference, one couple locked arms, while a man put his arm gently around his companion.

A meeting of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life & History was underway at Shiloh Baptist Church in Northwest Washington when a deacon burst in to announce that bombs were falling in Iraq.

Paulette Shaw's eyes began to water; her 23-year-old brother is a military medical technician in Germany, and she feared he would soon be bound for the front.

"Who knows what this means?" she said. "All the people of color are going to get killed fighting people of color. I'm just scared to death. I'm thinking about all those people over there. I feel terrible."

Prayers were offered for a swift end and little bloodshed. There seemed to be a pulling together. Thoughts flew to those in uniform, far away. "I'm not very soft usually, but tonight I'm hurting inside," said Joe Yurkanin, who was at the VFW post while his son, Staff Sgt. Greg Yurkanin, sat somewhere in Saudia Arabia. "I wish I could be there in my son's place. He's got his whole life to live."

Herbert Edwards was at Shiloh Baptist Church in Northwest Washington. His son, Herbert Jr., was in the gulf. "I know he's on the front lines," the father said. "My son is a Marine. He wanted to fight. All Marines want to fight." His eyes filled with tears. "We thought everything was cool. That's the only son I've got."

And some were thinking of the sons on the other side. "There are a lot less Iraqi soldiers than a few hours ago," said Kevin Cox, 35, who was at a Georgetown bar. "I feel like crying. Every soldier is some mama's little boy. We feel upset about our own people over there. They are crying over their sons."

The attack brought pangs of doubt and anguish among many, and surges of pride and determination among others. Some watched the television and didn't yet know how they felt.

"I was one of those guys who said we should bomb the hell out of them," said Shawnee Davis, 26, a trucker from Atlanta who had paused at the Truckers Inn off Interstate 95 near Jessup. "Now you hear this and I'm having second thoughts. I'm worried about the {American} boys. I'm worried about my family. I called my wife to tell her I love her."

Many phones at the truck stop were busy as drivers called home to share the news, to feel close to someone. There was little chatter. Many hung their heads as they watched television.

In the three-bedroom home of the Carrolls on Capitol Hill, the phone rang every 10 minutes or so. It was friends checking in, talking war. "Yeah, work seems idiotic right now, doesn't it?" John Carroll, 34, an associate publisher, said to one caller.

And after trying unsuccessfully several times, he finally reached his own mother, in Dallas: "Mom, isn't this horrible?" he said. She started crying. "It's going to be all right," he said. "But it's scary."

"I guess all along I thought there would be a diplomatic solution to this thing," Carroll said later. "Now that we're in there, I want victory."

Among those who opposed the president's decision, there were questions about why he hadn't waited longer to see if economic sanctions would force Iraq out, there were questions about the price in blood.

"I know people will be dying and blood will be shed for oil," said Doretha Gale, 35, a secretary who was at Shiloh Church. "It's senseless."

Sharon Bruce felt that way too. She is an academic adviser at George Mason University, where students were registering for classes last night. "I understand the importance of oil as a resource," Bruce said, "but it's incredibly depressing that we have to die for a resource."

"I just feel tremendous sorrow," said Ann Poznak, the manager of J. Paul's in Georgetown. "It's premature. I wish they could have waited longer. I just know I'll always remember the way the bar felt during the speech. It felt respectful, and as serious as a public place will ever get."

There was similar opposition at another restaurant, Herb's, on Rhode Island Avenue NW in downtown Washington. "My feeling is one of terrible sadness," said a 34-year-old woman. "I think we have gone much faster than we should have. I'm afraid of a terrible backlash from Arabs who remember Western imperialism. It's something we should remember too."

Likewise, Paula Stinson, 35, said, "It makes me sick to think of the Arab civilian casualties . . . . I don't care what Saddam Hussein did. That's what diplomacy is for."

But the opening shots spawned patriotism among many others, a feeling that the United States had played all of the cards of peace and that it was time to play the hand of war.

"I think it's a hell of a good idea," said Tom Pappas, 50, an Air Force veteran who was at the VFW Post. "They should blow his shorts off. He caused it. We negotiated and it's time to get rid of him. If we don't, he's going to fortify himself more and more, and we won't know what to do with him later."

Mark Jenness, a retired Navy officer from Germantown, was watching the war unfold on a TV in a Rockville bar: "I think it's about time," he said. "You have to do something to show this man it's no bluff. Letting people get away with things is what happened in World War II with Hitler. Hopefully, it will be over quickly. I've got a lot of friends over there. I feel guilty not being over there."

At White Flint Mall, Keith Johnson, 21, said he thought Saddam Hussein ought to "just say forget it."

"But he feels he can do what he wants," Johnson said. "I hope it's not a long war. Just blow up the whole country and get it over with."

There was even elation among some. "I feel great," said Rene Hamilton Gwaltney, a lawyer who works in the District and lives in Annapolis. "I think they're going to win. I feel confident that they're going to complete their mission."

Whether they supported Bush or not, many residents found themselves grappling with the specter of terrorism, the possibility that Iraq would retaliate for American bombing by planting bombs in public places in the United States.

"My mother was afraid when I told her I was going out," said Lori Schneider, 22, who was at Studebaker's bar in Rockville. "My mother was like, 'Don't go out! Don't go out! They're going to bomb!' But I said, 'Mom, they're not going to bomb Studebaker.' "

Marian Houston, a District resident who works at Lord & Taylor in Chevy Chase, said she would no longer ride Metro. She was also fearful of what might happen to the nation's economy: Her shopping cart at a supermarket was filled with extra rice, beans and canned goods. "You just don't know," she said.

Yet, in the midst of the furor, many were oblivious. In a review class for the Virginia bar examination at the Thomas Jefferson Recreation Center in Arlington, the war was announced -- and students kept on studying.