Iraqi-Americans watch attack with mixed feelings Support for tough action is weighed with concern for relatives, friends

December 18, 1998|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

Akra Salihi of Towson didn't need television to tell him what was happenning in Baghdad yesterday. He was on the telephone as his family members in a tiny village north of the Iraqi capital soothed their frightened children. In the background, the sounds of the U.S.-British attack.

"My God, they're hitting us again," his brother told him from Quzabart. The family hunkered down, convinced there was nowhere they could go that would be safe.

And so Baltimore-area family and friends of Iraqis are once again horrified at another bombing of their homeland.

Most Iraqi-Americans seem to support the bombing because it is a decisive act against Saddam Hussein, whom they loathe for terrorizing his people. But they also are angry at what they see as President Clinton's piecemeal approach to getting rid of the dictator.

"I am very much discouraged by this kind of record," said Mahmud Thamir, a retired cardiologist who emigrated from Iraq about 30 years ago. "The United States says it's serious in its opposition to Saddam, but we don't see any concrete, long-term policy to get rid of him."

The community of Iraqi-Americans in the Baltimore region is difficult to count, but many estimate that it numbers several thousand; most of whom came to the United States decades ago. Small pockets of refugees from the country's recent turmoil also exist in Maryland, but few have settled in Baltimore, according to the Maryland Office for New Americans.

Many long-standing emigres are physicians and engineers with strong ties to Iraq -- and, like many in the region's Muslim community, a mounting sense that they are powerless to affect the situation there.

Syed Ashruf, an immigrant from India who is active in the Al Rehma Mosque in Catonsville, said, "This is not going to serve any purpose. They're just bombing, terrorizing the people there and the victims are women and children."

Even Iraqi-Americans in the United States, feel the weight of Hussein's dictatorial hand, they say. Calls home often are monitored by Iraqi authorities, and news reports are government-controlled and spotty. Many Iraqi residents are afraid to speak in opposition for fear of being arrested.

"They are very nervous, they are just clinging for the news," said Elias Shomali, an Arab-American activist who lives in Towson and has a nephew studying in Iraq. "It's not easy to get telephone calls or anything. All they can do is just pray and wait and hope things will change."

No Iraqi-Americans interviewed for this article wanted their picture to appear in the newspaper.

"No," said Salihi. "We are scared for our families over there. A picture wouldn't help."

Clinton said he launched the attack partly to avoid affecting the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins this weekend.

But many local Muslims did not put much stock in such reasoning.

"Which hurts more, getting bombed on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve?" said James Zogbi, president of the Arab American Institute in Washington. "This is a time of preparation [for Ramadan]. It's all disruptive to the season -- it doesn't matter if it's two days before or right in the middle of it."

For some, the current bombings diminish the significance of Clinton's accomplishments as a peacemaker during his trip last week to Israel and Gaza.

"What troubles me is the extent to which we've poured cold water on the gains that were the result of the president's trip," said Zogbi.

"The regime is lighting a Christmas tree in Bethlehem and all the while this [bombing] was being planned. There was this whole positive peace process and now we're bombing Iraq."

Salihi visited Iraq in June and interviewed people -- from grocers to physicians. Nearly all, he said, say President George Bush wrought havoc on the country during the gulf war but left Hussein in power.

"They blame Bush quite a bit," Salihi said. "They said he didn't hit him hard."

Now, some are likely to blame blame on Clinton for planning a fierce but short bombing campaign, from which Hussein is likely to survive, he said.

"He may become stronger because he can boast that he withstood another attack," Thamir said.

Pub Date: 12/18/98

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