Outside the earshot of Saddam Hussein, away from the public airwaves and state-run press, a great political debate on the future of Iraq is taking place.

Democratic reforms promised after the gulf war have Iraqis pondering possibilities for change in their hard-line system.Saddam has promised a multiparty democracy, free elections and a freer press. Little of that has yet materialized. But Iraqis have begun to speak more freely, even if many remain extremely wary.

Most agree there is only an outside chance Saddam could fall from power, largely because organized opposition has been largely crushed.

"People talk among themselves, among their families. But there will never be a demonstration. If someone tried to organize one, he would disappear and never be heard from again," said one man, a professional with a working knowledge of the government.

Like others who have strong feelings against Sad-dam, he did not want to be identified. A more open society may have been promised, but there is still a great deal of fear.

"This man will do anything for one reason - to remain in power. Anything," the man said.

"Look at the humiliation of the (cease-fire) peace terms. We are an occupied country. This is a terrible thing, if you are any sort of nationalist," he said.

Allied troops are occupying a stretch of northern Iraq to protect the Kurds and only recently left the south when U.N. peacekeepers took over the demilitarized zone on the Iraq-Kuwait frontier.

Saddam's support is strongest among the Arab Sunni Muslims of Baghdad and other parts of central Iraq. But they comprise only about 18 percent of the population.

The stiffest opposition is found among the Shiite Muslims, who make up 55 percent to 60 percent of the 17 million population, and among Kurds, who comprise an estimated 3.5 million.

But others still express support for Saddam in a country that has traditionally valued strong leaders.

Zahed Mansour, a businessman and hotelier, said that after the rebellions in the north and south "people have found that the leadership is strong, and it's what we need at this time."

A political science student at the university, Sahar Harbi, said the pledges of democracy are "good changes for our country, and we look forward to make many changes like this. We need time. Democracy will take time," she said.

In other Mideast-related developments:

- Defense Secretary Dick Cheney has ordered 3,700 fresh U.S. troops to Kuwait to replace departing Americans as part of a "continued military presence" there, the Pentagon said Friday.

Meanwhile, President Bush told Congress that thousands of U.S. troops must remain in northern Iraq for now to aid and protect the Kurdish minority from Saddam's forces.

- Washington offered asylum to Iraq's former ambassador to the United States, but he refused it and instead sought refuge in Canada, according to a secret memo to the former Canadian immigration minister.

- An unidentified disease has killed at least 26 children returning from Iraqi refugee camps on the Turkish border, and many others are believed to be in jeopardy, officials said Friday.

Medical workers said the victims, most under 3 years old, appear to be dying of a blood infection. But they don't know exactly what type of infection, or how the children got it.

- Bush on Friday signed a bill authorizing $425 million in humanitarian aid to be used for the Iraqi refugees and other displaced persons around the world.

No specific amount was pinpointed in the legislation for emergency assistance to the Kurdish refugees, but some of the money would go for peacekeeping activities in the Persian Gulf.

- Hollywood Boulevard, where the names of movie stars are immortalized in concrete, will be the backdrop to invading tanks, troops and stealth fighters as the nation's glitter capital honors gulf war veterans.

Organizers said they expect more than 1 million people to line the boulevard Sunday, drawn by floats, veterans, military hardware and the appearances of such celebrities as Bob Hope, Jimmy Stewart, Cesar Romero and George Peppard.

To get people in the spirit, a 500-foot yellow ribbon was tied around the Hollywood sign on Thursday.