Throughout much of the Arab world today, the sudden collapse of Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq weighed heavily on what is normally the day of the week for prayer and relaxation.

People bickered outside mosques over the meaning of the defeat, and preachers spoke with weary sadness and an occasional flash of defiance. For the first time in weeks, there were virtually no demonstrations, just a few halfhearted protesters making a brief stand against what was called the "occupation" of Iraq. Many people were somber, dejected and confused after seeing Iraqi citizens on television appearing to be jubilant at the arrival of U.S. troops.

"How can we complain if the Iraqi people are happy?" Hany Rashad, 18, asked while standing near the ancient al-Azhar mosque in Cairo. Rashad recalled that only last week he was chanting "Death to America." Now he was lounging listlessly in the sun and acknowledged he was uncertain what to think or do.

In sermons across the region, imams sought to explain the fall of Baghdad by using allegory from the history of Islam.

At the al-Kaluty mosque in Amman, known for its independent preachers, worshipers were reminded that the Muslims eventually conquered the Mongols and the Crusaders, and heard prophecies about a battle near a river that "may" be the Tigris.

In Beirut, Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, one of the country's top Shiite clerics, warned the United States against misinterpreting Iraqis' celebrations over the demise of their government. "Some, or perhaps many, celebrated the fall of a tyrannical and savage regime, but it was not a celebration of occupation," said Fadlallah, once the spiritual guide of the militant Hezbollah movement.

In Cairo, thousands of riot police came out prepared to contain protests that fizzled out shortly after they started. Some people at a mosque chanted "Save Iraq!" but no crowds poured into the streets as they have in previous weeks.

Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, grand sheik of al-Azhar University and considered the paramount scholar of Sunni Islam, was muted and vague: "The Iraqi people. The Iraqi people. God divide anyone trying to hurt them."

A sense of the conflicting emotions could be gleaned from the rest stops where travelers paused on their way to and from Iraq. Arab volunteers who had rushed to Iraq eager to fight the U.S. and British invaders trickled home, their ranks decimated and disillusioned, while many Iraqis rushed to go home to their country now that Hussein had fallen.

As many as 200 volunteer fighters have returned to Lebanon in the past two days. Many Beirut newspapers today published interviews with the men, almost all of whom voiced disappointment at the outcome of the war.

Dozens of worried parents clustered near the Syrian border, looking for sons from whom they have not heard in weeks. A 17-year-old youth identified only by his first name, Hamza, said he had gone to Iraq among a group of 70 volunteers but returned with only 10. He said the Iraqi officer in charge of the volunteers instructed them not to shoot at U.S. soldiers, then disappeared.

At the bus station in Amman, about 100 Iraqis dickered with taxi drivers demanding as much as $700 to drive to Iraq. Nine men shared the cost, and jammed into a rickety station wagon with their belongings piled on the roof for the trip home to towns in southern Iraq.

"We left because of Saddam's brutality," said Hassan Dahil, 25, a construction worker who fled three years ago. "Now he is no longer there, so there is no need to stay here. I don't like the Americans being there, but they show more mercy than Saddam."

Outside the al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, Rashad's friends argued over the reasons for Iraq's quick collapse.

"I think the U.S. and Saddam were in it together to help Israel," suggested Amar Mohammed, 20. "Why didn't Saddam blow up bridges or come out fighting with his mighty Republican Guard? He promised he would. He made a deal with Bush to save his life?"

Others shouted their theories in a confusing, noisy jumble.

"Saddam was a tyrant," said Hassan El Garliy, 22, a clothing store owner. "We should just be happy for the Iraqi people that he is gone."

"Saddam is a hero and he will rise again," countered Abdel Nagi Hassan, a graying man who pounded his fist in the air. "He has a plan!"

"Can't we admit defeat?" said Rashad with a shrug.

In some places the emotional wounds remain raw. In Amman, dozens of mourners filled the home of Tareq Ayoub, a reporter for the al-Jazeera satellite television network who was killed in a U.S. missile strike in Baghdad last week. His photograph was seen across the Jordanian capital, and more than 10,000 people attended his funeral Thursday. In death, Ayoub has become a symbol of the random toll of the battle.

Signs directing mourners to Ayoub's house called him a martyr. A large editorial cartoon in the front window showed him wearing a bulletproof vest with the word "press" written on it. His microphone is a candle. Menacing bats, with the words "U.S. Army," flutter around his head.

His father, Naim Ayoub, came to the street outside the tent where the men were gathered, and said he did not understand how the United States could bring freedom and justice with tanks and warplanes.

"My son did not carry a machine gun in his hand," he said tearfully. "Where is your conscience, Americans?"

Wax reported from Cairo. Special correspondent Alia Ibrahim in Beirut contributed to this report.

Egyptians chant anti-U.S. slogans during a demonstration against the war in Iraq held outside the al-Azhar mosque in Cairo following noon prayers. Women at Cairo's al-Azhar mosque shout in support of a Palestinian state during a rally against the war. About 1,000 people took part in the protest.