When Tariq Aziz refused to accept President Bush's letter to Saddam Hussein, he demonstrated a consistent hurdle of dealing with Iraq these days: No one wants to bring the boss bad news.

Throughout the gulf crisis, it's been a one-man show in Baghdad, with Saddam making the decisions and pulling the strings.He has surrounded himself with loyalists and yes-men who know that Iraq's graveyards are filled with those who paid the ultimate penalty for carrying bad tidings. When Saddam calls a cabinet meeting, most of those sitting around the table are either longtime associates from his home province of Takrit or relatives through blood and marriage.

When they speak, underlings like Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz know they're not going to get into trouble by slavishly adopting the party line. When Aziz refused to accept Bush's letter to Saddam, it was more out of consideration for his own neck than for his stated reason that Bush didn't use proper diplomatic language.

Saddam's iron grip on all life in Iraq is the anvil that's breaking efforts by U.S. and European diplomats to come up with a solution to the gulf crisis. Discouraged diplomats here say there will be no solution until Saddam's closest colleagues get up enough courage to tell him the jig's up.

But who in Iraq will dare?

A stream of diplomatic missions over the past five months has carried the same message to Saddam: that he can't win. But he has ignored every one of them.

Aziz also is deceiving Western public opinion by insisting Iraqis are fully aware of the prospect of war and that they monitor American television and newspapers. This is true for Aziz and Saddam's other associates, but the Iraqi population generally is blithely unaware of what's coming.

There are only three TV satellite dishes in Baghdad - in the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Information and the presidential palace.

Average Iraqis aren't allowed to own short-wave radios, and the state-run television, radio and newspapers are controlled and manipulated by an Orwellian Ministry of Information that "massages" the news.

The bottom line is that the Iraqi public only knows what Saddam wants it to know.

The access given American reporters to visit and talk to Iraqis since the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait also is deceptive: It gives the world a false image that some Western-style freedoms are permitted in Baghdad. Inside Iraq, three separate intelligence agencies spying on the Iraqi population ensure that no one speaks out.

So it's not surprising that the debates in the West are misunderstood. Iraq and many surrounding Arab states don't tolerate dissent because it is considered a sign of weakness for a strong politician.

From Saddam's point of view, he's winning with his hard-line stand. He hasn't given up an inch of captured territory, and there is no solid agreement in the West on what to do in response.

The debate is whether to strangle Iraq slowly through continued economic sanctions, or to get it over more quickly with military action.

In addition, French diplomats are lobbying for the United States to make yet another gesture for peace by calling an international conference on the Middle East that would link the invasion of Kuwait with the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Washington has rejected the idea repeatedly.

It's no surprise, then, that Saddam's clever manipulation of the Palestinian issue has turned him into a hero in the Arab world. He has diverted attention from Kuwait to Israel's grip on the West Bank and Gaza Strip and drawn attention to the fragility of Middle East governments controlled by families of oil-rich sheiks.

The world's financial markets gyrate wildly over war threats and peace maneuvers. The hardships from the sanctions against Iraq haven't yet begun to pinch.

Until someone gets to Saddam and convinces him the West will attack if he doesn't withdraw, there's no sign he'll give up.