BAGHDAD, Iraq -- There is probably nothing as rare in Baghdad as to hear a joke told about feared leader Saddam Hussein, so when a dealer in secondhand videos at a market in the city's New Baghdad district wanted to tell one, it seemed worth a listen.
"Do you know why President Saddam doesn't shave his mustache?" he asked. "Because someone would have to go around and erase the mustaches off all his portraits."
Not exactly a side-splitter, but in a country where even implied criticism can mean disappearance or death, it is something of a gem.
With the deadline for possible war over Kuwait drawing near, whispered expressions of dissent are being heard more and more frequently inside the generally tight-lipped population of Baghdad.
As the Hussein government has prepared for war during the past four months, the willingness of common citizens, at least in private, to object to policy seems to have grown.
Over the weekend, the play of public opinion in Iraq suddenly became a subject of intense conjecture when the government went out of its way to knock down a rumor widely current here. Word had spread that Mr. Hussein was planning to call a massive demonstration of supporters who would, on cue, demand peace. To the hurrahs of the crowd, Mr. Hussein would respond by pulling his troops out of Kuwait.
Mr. Hussein and the close-knit ruling Revolutionary Command Council blamed the rumor's force on foreign newspapers. But in Baghdad, the speculation was current long before the international press mentioned anything about it.
Humble flour-vendors, rug merchants, teachers, Iraqi journalists -- it seemed that everyone was repeating the hopeful demonstration-pullout scenario.
In Baghdad, there is no apparent enthusiasm for all-out war. That is not to say that Baghdadis reject the notion that Kuwait is historically part of Iraq. Nor do many Iraqis seem to like the Kuwaitis, who are viewed as haughty, or the Kuwaiti royal family, which is considered greedy.
But fighting for Kuwait is a different matter, particularly because the wounds of Iraq's devastating eight-year war with Iran are yet unhealed.
The political resolution of the war with Iran seems to have undermined faith in the government's power of decision. Soon after Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, Mr. Hussein announced that Iraq would unilaterally withdraw from the Iranian land it had occupied and turn a two-year cease-fire into a long-lasting peace.
Iraq settled with Tehran by agreeing to borders set in a 1975 treaty -- one that Mr. Hussein had renounced when he launched his invasion of the neighboring country.
Iraqis have begun to recall with bitterness the losses incurred by Iraq to take and hold the disputed land.
"Many boys died," said a middle-aged portrait painter. "Many lives were ruined because Saddam said the borders were wrong. Now he says the same thing about Kuwait."
Disenchantment with Iraq's military buildup in Kuwait is usually expressed by lamenting the induction of young recruits into the army or the return of veterans to the fighting ranks for possible new battles only two years after the close of the Iran-Iraq war.
"The young have no happy life," complained a disabled veteran of the last war. "And the men who came back from fighting Iran, they started families, a new life."
Criticism of the Hussein regime itself surfaces from time to time, often in references to the reputed wealth accumulated by Mr. Hussein's family members.
Iraqis seem to keep a mental catalog of all the houses built for Mr. Hussein's relatives or associates. "He has palaces just like the sheiks" of Saudi Arabia, said a man strolling near a stretch of the Tigris River where several guarded residential compounds stand.
Baghdad residents who espouse preference for peace talks rather than conflict find the official drumbeating for war an irritation. "Haki faadi. Empty talk," complained a customer at a traditional cafe as he listened to a broadcast government threat to crush the heads of invading U.S. troops.
"The ministers speak like this because it is not they who must fight and die," the customer said.
The flip side to the rumors of an impending peace move are even more numerous ones that point anxiously to war. Curiously, Iraqis look to Jan. 10 as the key date for their country's fortune, not Jan. 15, the United Nations deadline for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait.
According to several Baghdad residents, on Jan. 10, the government will close schools and factories and begin to use the civilian airport in Baghdad as a military facility.
The transformation of the airport was particularly troubling, because the modern terminal is Iraq's only outlet to the world.
"We will be like a fort," said a hotel director. "No one can get out, and to get in, you have to break down the door."