BAGHDAD, Iraq -- For a city that believes itself to be only days away from an apocalyptic war, Baghdad is surprisingly, almost absurdly, relaxed.
There are no preparations for civilian defense, no air raid drills, no blackouts, no sandbags around buildings and no attempts to evacuate children to safer areas.
But Baghdad is a city where nothing is quite as it seems, a mass of contradictions and deceptions that underline the dangerous game of bluff and counter-bluff that is being played out in the Middle East.
It starts innocently enough with the way Iraqis greet people: They have a habit of saying "hello" when they mean "goodbye." It continues through just about every facet of Iraqi life.
The city's skyline is dominated by a mighty futuristic monument that President Saddam Hussein has built to symbolize Iraq's supposed progress in two decades under his leadership.
But Iraqis have never had the chance to enjoy the benefits of the wealth from their country's oil wells.
Most of the money was spent on the eight-year war with Iran that ended in 1988 and on building up a massive military machine, as well as on some extraordinarily expensive architecture.
The grandiose sculptures and the gleaming new government buildings would make Baghdad a fine location for a science-fiction movie, but they seem out of place beside the people whose achievements they are meant to glorify -- the peasant women in their billowing black abeyahs, the tired-looking young men in cheap imitations of Western fashion, who have just been released from service in one war only to face the prospect of dying in another.
A pall of silence hangs over the sprawling capital of 3 million. The coffeehouses -- which are noisy heated forums for fierce political debate in some other Arab capitals -- are silent, ghostly affairs in Baghdad.
Here, the old men smoke and the young men play chess or dominoes in silence. Attempts to draw them into conversation are met with terse excuses -- "I'm sorry, I don't discuss politics" -- or rote-like repetitions of the day's editorials in the government-owned press ranting against the United States and the West.
On the campus of Baghdad University, students approach strangers to offer unsolicited proclamations of loyalty to Mr. Hussein.
"I have a statement," announced Hussan Bin, 22. "I want to tell you that we here in Iraq, students, workers, everyone, are with the leadership of our country. We are with our leader, and whatever he says we agree with him, in peace and in war, from the north to the south."
A ubiquitous security apparatus, a rambling bureaucracy and a massive military machine link just about every Iraqi to the government, either personally or through a close family member. Expressions of dissent are ruthlessly discouraged.
Foreign reporters must be accompanied everywhere by government "minders" from the Ministry of Information, who serve to discourage relaxed conversation with Iraqis.
Long-term foreign residents say they detect mounting discontent among ordinary Iraqis with the government and with its foreign relations crisis. Although most Iraqis apparently believe Kuwait belongs to Iraq, they do not want war.
This is one of the few sentiments that Iraqis openly and fervently express. If it is not oppression that seems to have squeezed every spark of life out of this ancient Arab capital, then it is fatigue -- the experience of eight years of war followed now by the prospect of another indefinite conflict.
Until last week, the Iraqi government had conspicuously played down the risks of war, neglecting to report in Iraqi newspapers the more bellicose statements coming out of Washington and the details of the troop buildup in Saudi Arabia.
Western diplomats had attributed the low-key approach to an attempt to numb any expression of discontent that might have surfaced if Iraqis thought they would have to pay for Kuwait with a massive war.
Now the Iraqi government is shrilly trumpeting the likelihood of all-out war in the coming days.