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Anxiety Clouds Holiday Season for Iraqi-Americans - 2002-12-21

The month of December in the United States is rife with celebrations - Christmas, Hannukah, Ramadan and Kwanzaa. But with the threat of war between their home country and their country of origin looming, this holiday season is an anxious one for Iraqi Americans.

Mohammed Al-Omari moved with his family from Baghdad to the mid-Western state of Michigan as a young child in 1970. He still lives there, as do about 100,000 Iraqi-Americans - the largest concentration in the United States.

Mr. Al-Omari helped found Focus on American & Arab Interests & Relations, an organization aimed at fostering a better understanding of Arab world issues. He says the prospect of a U.S.-Iraqi war is weighing heavily on Iraqi-Americans.

"Even the people who spent most of their lives in Iraq, and recently immigrated, they feel that this is their new home," he said. "They feel that this is a country that has opened its arms to them, and they feel very welcome, very happy. At the same time, it's like they've left something behind. Their parents, their relatives, they have this emotional relationship, and sympathy for the suffering of their relatives."

Mr. Al-Omari says Iraqi Americans unanimously agree on the need to improve life for people living in Iraq following the Iran-Iraq War in the 80s, and the U.S.-led Gulf War against Iraq 11 years ago after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein ordred his troops to invade Kuwait.

Salam Jafar, a physician and a member the Iraqi Forum for Democracy, equates life in Iraq under Saddam Hussein with life in the former Soviet Union under Josef Stalin.

"TV is all Saddam propaganda. He has his agents everywhere. They have them in the schools, in case the kids say anything wrong about the government," he said. "We know some parents who were harmed because their kids spoke in front of teachers. That's the kind of brutality Iraqis are living in. People in the West don't understand the meaning of freedom because they take it for granted."

A sampling of Iraqi-Americans shows a consensus on the need to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Ismat Hamid, President of the Ann Arbor, Michigan, chapter of the American Muslim Council, is one of them, but says that war with Iraq, whether it is over bad leadership or weapons of mass destruction, will not achieve the desired effect of improved stability in the Middle East.

"The Bush administration, with its current advisors, is going to go to war sooner or later," he said. "I believe it's going to be a quick victory because of the military power. But in the long run, it's going to be a disaster. For the West, for America, and for the Middle East."

Mr. Hamid says effective change in Iraq can only come from within.

Other Iraqi Americans oppose a war for reasons that have little to do with political goals. Mohammed Al-Omari, for example, thinks the Iraqi people need a break from hardship.

"Prior to 1990, Iraq provided clean drinking water to over 90 percent of their citizens," he said. "They had adequate civilian services, sewage, electricity. These services still have not been restored fully. When you talk to people over there, they still feel that the 1991 war hasn't ended. They feel, When is this all going to end? That's the constant question."

Iraqi American Ghanim Al-Jumaily is the head of Life for Relief and Development, a non-governmental organization established to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Iraq in the wake of the Gulf War. He believes that Iraq can be disarmed and Saddam Hussein can be removed without military action.

"Iraq and countries like it are tiny counties. There is so much that can be done from the outside," he said. "I think the United States can put their pressure, their weight, behind the idea of democracy and free elections. I'd like to see the U.S. use their influence to push for democracy not only in Iraq, but in the rest of the Arab world."

For many Iraqi-Americans, however, diplomatic channels have proven useless one too many times. Salam Jafar fled Iraq with his family 22 years ago, not long after Saddam Hussein became President and led Iraq into war with Iran. He sees the current threat of conflict as an opportunity - to remove Saddam Hussein and establish democracy in Iraq.

"It's been 22 years, and things are getting worse by the day if not by the minute," he said. "By turning our eyes away from the crimes he has committed, we are sharing in the crimes, and that's against the beliefs of any peaceful movement. People who are talking about ridding Iraq of Saddam are actually peace-loving people. I don't want war, but you can advance peace sometimes by doing war."

Mr. Jafar envisions a political change in Iraq like the one recently made in Afghanistan, and feels certain that the Iraqi people are desperate for just such a change.

"Most of the people I talk to want assistance from outside to get rid of this brutal tyrant," he said. "Saddam needs to be removed forcefully, and the minute that the Iraqi people realize there is some help coming from outside, I'm sure they will revolt just like they did in 1990 after the Gulf War. Unfortunately, the outside help did not come then."

Mr. Jafar says, if democracy takes hold in Iraq, he will return with his family and join the Iraqi people in rebuilding the country.