I was strolling across the courtyard of Mustansiryah University in the Iraqi capital, asking students whether they were nervous that war might be coming soon.

"No one is nervous," a tall young man insisted. His companion, staring at me with intense gray-green eyes, whispered: "He lies. Everyone is nervous." He paused as his more timid friend jabbed him in the ribs, trying to make him shut up, then added: "People can get killed for telling the truth. Everyone lies."For a journalist trying to understand what is going on in Iraq, this bold youth summed up the problem. People are afraid to talk. And almost everyone who does, official or ordinary bystander, mouths the official line.

U.S. and European journalists are all housed in the Al-Rasheed Hotel, otherwise referred to as "the kennel" by some journalistic wags. The phones are bugged, and hidden cameras record who goes in and out of the rooms.

In most countries, the glue that fills in the gaps between official interviews and man-in-the-street opinions are the academics, professionals and local journalists who tell a visitor what is really going on.

In this country, such people - with very rare exceptions - would never risk talking to the foreign media. And if they would, they usually are sent by the Information Ministry and parrot the party line.

Some who covered Moscow in the past say the situation in Baghdad is like a pre-"glasnost" Moscow-on-the-Tigris. But in fact, it is worse. Even in the days when Muscovites were terrified to talk to foreigners lest they receive a visit from the KGB, there were always dissidents and Jewish refuseniks willing to talk. In Baghdad, most dissidents have emigrated or have been killed.

Beyond the difficulties already mentioned - and this is what makes Iraq different - buttonholing an ordinary citizen may put that person in danger. The ruling Baath Party has members in every neighborhood. Anyone can report a person seen talking to a foreigner.

What makes the whole situation even more bizarre is the odd sensation of being an American talking to Iraqis who in a few days' time may be taking shelter from U.S. bombs. Often the first reaction of Iraqis is to assume that a foreigner is a hostage who somehow missed the plane. "Couldn't you get out?" I have been asked solicitously more than once.

What is amazing is how many people will talk to an American. Even the majority who avoid political discussion are eager to relate stories of relatives in America or connections there.

The good will toward Americans is staggering, even painful, given the situation, especially when people ask anxiously, "Will America attack?"

In the meantime, one can only grope through the rhetorical fog for some elements of reality. And when a passer-by, hearing English, suddenly begins to whisper and talks straight talk rather than parroting, the sense of relief is so acute it's hard to bear.

At the university, the green-eyed man, who spent eight years in the army fighting Iran, says it wasn't worth it then and dying for Kuwait isn't worth it now. "We are like machines, doing what we are told. When they say cheer, we cheer," he says bitterly.

Then he sees my official escort standing some distance away. "Is he Iraqi?" he asks. I say yes and add quickly, "I didn't see you."

"I didn't see you, either," he says as he fades away. "Don't use my name."

(Trudy Rubin, a member of The Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board, is on special assignment in the Middle East.)