These days the man who has led Iraq since 1968 - through two wars, years of oil plenty and years of dire crises, does not sleep in the same place two nights in a row, his former associates say.

He sometimes sends out presidential convoys of cars as decoys while he takes the wheel of another car himself, dressed in Bedouin garb and in the company of a bodyguard or two from the Special Guards, his security detail. They show up at the door of ordinary households to announce: "You have a guest tonight."In anticipation of an American air attack, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has reverted to the pattern of surreptitious moves that he adopted during the Persian Gulf War to evade attempts to make him a target.

The former associates - several senior officials who worked for him and met with him, Arab Cabinet ministers who have visited him recently and Arab intelligence officers monitoring Iraq - all agreed in interviews last week that as Iraq prepares for the possibility of a military strike by the United States and its allies, the nation's supreme goal is to make sure Saddam survives.

And his survival seems near certain unless there is a secret plan to land troops to find and kill him, some Arab officials say.

"I saw what happened during the strikes of 1990 and 1991," a former senior Iraqi official said. "You couldn't find Saddam. No one knew where he was - not the members of the Revolutionary Council, not the Cabinet ministers. Only a handful of people did, and they were not accessible.

"He spent nights among people in the most ordinary neighborhoods. You never knew until there was a knock on the door with someone announcing a special guest. The following morning he was gone as fast as he came. He spent nights in tents in the desert, in farms. One night I saw him in a trailer to which I was summoned in a minivan with curtains drawn and a warning not to look out the window."

Saddam is doing now as he did then, other Arab officials agree.

Part of the reason for the caution is reflected in a remark by a senior Saudi intelligence official who insisted on anonymity: "If an American attack guarantees Saddam will be killed, we would be the first to support it. Anything less would be pointless. It would only kill Iraqis and make him more vengeful."