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For Iraqi Americans, War Brings Mixed Emotions - 2003-03-29


Nearly four million, or one out of five Iraqis, live outside their homeland.

Their exodus began after a military coup brought Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party to power in 1968. Few have returned for fear they would be held indefinitely by Saddam's regime. No matter where they find themselves -- in Europe, Australia or North America -- Iraqi-American Jalal al-Amiri says they are all connected by a common emotion:

"It's a mixed feeling of every Iraqi. They don't want Saddam or his Ba'ath party in power at all, but they don't want affliction on the Iraqi people because the Iraqis have suffered enough of conflict that Saddam has created. Every Iraqi has a family back home," Mr. al-Amiri said. "So you are afraid of anything that could happen to your nation, to your people, but at the same time you also want the liberation of Iraq."

Mr. al-Amiri, now a businessman in Philadelphia, is one of more than 250,000 Iraqis living in the United States. He is a Shiite Muslim, part of the largest ethnic group in Iraq that represents at least 60 percent of the population.

Shiite Muslims have a history of resistance to Saddam's Sunni Muslim regime. Even as a majority, the Shiite Muslims have little power in Iraq, but U.S. government officials say they will play a significant role in a post-Saddam government.

Mr. al-Amiri escaped Iraq in 1980 after two of his brothers disappeared and one of his sisters was poisoned by Saddam Hussein's regime. Since the war began, he speaks on the phone often with his two surviving sisters in Baghdad. Despite the intense bombing of the city, his sisters say it is all worth it if it means the fall of Saddam Hussein.

"My sense is they have full confidence that the United States is not there to harm the people," Mr. al-Amiri said. "They know they have faced a brutal regime that cared less about their welfare than what the United States is doing it to liberate them from the dictator."

Detroit, Michigan, is now home to the largest group of Iraqis living outside Iraq. An Iraqi population of more than 100,000 here are split into two groups: Christian Iraqis and Shiite Muslims.

The Shiite Muslims are mostly refugees from the first Gulf war and tend to congregate with other Muslims in the suburb of Dearborn.

At the end of the 1991 Gulf war, an uprising erupted against a weakened Saddam Hussein. Emboldened by nearby U.S. forces, Kurds in the north and Shiite Muslims in the south revolted and began to kill ruling Ba'ath party members. But Saddam Hussein crushed the revolt and killed more than 300,000 people in retaliation. Many others fled the country, including Iraqi-American Faris Sharba.

Now a car dealer in Detroit, Michigan, Mr. Sharba has faith the United States will rid Iraq of Saddam Hussein and bring democracy. Like many Iraqi-Americans, he believes things may get a lot worse in Iraq before they get better.

He realizes Saddam Hussein could unleash chemical weapons, or that the war may linger and deepen the perception in much of the Middle East that this is part of a larger war against Islam. Despite the risks, he says removing Saddam Hussein by force is the only way.

"My family and the other families are waiting and counting each minute to get the news of the removal of Saddam and his regime," Mr. Sharba said. "The people inside of Iraq right now, they are happy, even though the costs will be high, compared to Saddam where there is no future. They have been in long dark night, 35 years of Saddam in power, and they are waiting for a new morning and the sunshine of the freedom."

Many from the Iraqi Muslim community in this Detroit suburb discuss what's happening during Friday morning services at local mosques.

Qeithar al-Hemuzi also escaped Iraq at age 25 after the failed 1991 uprising. He spent more than a year as a refugee in Saudi Arabia and Somalia before arriving in Michigan, where he now is a truck driver. He says the Iraqi community in Dearborn strongly supports the war effort to liberate Iraq.

"We are very happy that Saddam Hussein's government will end very soon. The only thing we are scared of is the war will take a long time and a lot of people get killed from both sides the American and British side and the Iraqi people," he said. "We are all shocked why the Iraqi people don't rise up against Saddam Hussein. There is definitely something going on.

Mr. al-Hemuzi says perhaps Iraqis fear that a deal will be struck before coalition forces take Baghdad, leaving Saddam in power and able to kill anyone who displayed disloyalty, as he did in the 1991 revolt.

But an Iraqi-American professor from Dearborn, who preferred not to be named because he still has family in Iraq, expects the Iraqi people to rise up against Saddam once they realize he will lose this war.

Almost no Iraqi disagrees that Saddam Hussein is a brutal tyrant who needs to go. Iraqi-American Andy Shallal, a Sunni Muslim who operates restaurants in Washington, says it is easy to make the moral case for ending the rule of a tyrant who has terrorized his people.

However, he argues the war may strengthen anti-Americanism.

"Why would we want to mire ourselves in a situation that's going to create more angst and terrorism in the future?" Mr. Shallal asks. "There is a sense this is an invasion, not a liberation."

Mr. Shallal says forceful pressure on Saddam Hussein and comprehensive United Nations inspections would have eventually caused the dictator to crack. He says as coalition forces of overwhelming power continue to close in, Saddam Hussein is becoming something of a folk hero in the Arab world.

In an effort to prepare for possible terrorist attacks, the U.S. government stepped up security around the country when the war began last week. Part of heightened security measures includes close monitoring of Iraqi-Americans.

The FBI is questioning Iraqi Immigrants in an effort to gather information that could be useful in the war and to find those they believe might be a threat to national security.

Erik Gustafson, a U.S. veteran of the 1991 Gulf war, is now executive director of Education for Peace in Iraq, a group dedicated to improving Iraqi human conditions. He says not all Iraqi-Americans are speaking their minds about the war.

"A lot of Iraqis are subdued because they are living in fear right now. The FBI is questioning a lot of Iraqis right now," Mr. Gustafson said. "As a result, we are seeing an overrepresentation of Iraqi-Americans that back this war, and they appear to back the war at any costs."

Though some Iraqi-Americans may not be expressing their opinions, Tara al-Saray, a Kurd from northern Iraq states hers with fervor. The Iraqi Kurds, who make up nearly 20 percent of the population, already enjoy some autonomy and would benefit from a Saddam Hussein-free Iraq.

"There is no other choice because people tried many other ways. The more chances they gave him, the more he destroyed his country," Ms. Saray said. "We have to pay a big price, with people's lives and with the reconstruction of the country that has been destroyed."

As the world continues to watch what happens in Iraq, perhaps the stakes remain highest for Iraqis, both in Iraq and throughout the world.

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