For Iraqi-Americans, a wrenching moment

With war seemingly near, many fear for relatives as they await Hussein's fall

Deadline For Hussein

March 19, 2003|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Hussain Bakir has about a hundred reasons to support a war in Iraq: his relatives who live there under the shadow of Saddam Hussein.

"We have to live in peace, and we need help to do it. War is our only option," said Bakir, an Owings Mills resident whose six brothers and sisters live in and around Baghdad. Dozens of cousins live nearby.

But Fawz Bakir, a North Potomac resident unrelated to Hussain, cites family as his reason for adamantly opposing military action. "Can you imagine the scars this will leave?" he asked. "Some haven't recovered from the last war."

Their disparate reactions underscore the dilemma faced by Iraqi-Americans as the United States prepares to launch an assault on their homeland to remove Hussein: Support the war and confront the possibility that the action will lead to the death of loved ones or oppose it and live with your implicit endorsement of Hussein's bloody rule.

"Iraqi-Americans are stuck between the hammer that comes from American policy and the anvil of the repressive regime of Saddam," said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute in Washington. "On top of that, they face a hostile public reaction on the home front, so there's this sense that a collision is about to happen."

Drawing a clear picture of the divisions over the prospective war among Iraqi-Americans in the area is difficult, in part because there are so few of them - only 529 in Maryland and 1,841 in Virginia, according to the 2000 Census. Most of the nation's 90,000 Iraqi-born residents live around Detroit, New York and San Diego.

Most can be split into two groups, those who fled after the Persian Gulf war in 1991 and those that left during the 1970s, when Hussein was rising to power. In the Baltimore area, most are professionals such as doctors or lawyers, and are comfortably middle-class.

Many are reluctant to speak out because of the danger of retribution against relatives in Iraq. Others worry about a backlash toward Iraqis here because of their nation's recent violent history.

"Iraq is involved in war after war after war. It makes our name synonymous to a bad thing," said Hussain Bakir.

"There's reticence on their part because they're concerned they're being targeted for their race and for potential hate crimes," said Laila al-Qatami, a spokeswoman for the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee. "When the FBI comes to interview you and you haven't done anything wrong, wouldn't you be a little scared?" she asked, referring to the FBI's recent practice of questioning Iraqi-Americans.

Some Iraqi-Americans are so fearful that they try to hide their nationality.

"I know a man who just came over from Iraq, can barely put two sentences of English together but tells people he's Sicilian, he's so scared," said Fawz Bakir, who moved to the United States in 1971 and is now a property manager.

Groups such as the Iraqi National Congress, the main opposition party in exile, which has received substantial U.S. funding and led a failed 1995 coup to oust Hussein, have been pro-war. Members see the coming war as setting the stage for the return of politicians in exile.

Others back war because it would rid their homeland of Hussein and because they believe the conflict would be short and casualties relatively low.

"We are not going to lose more people than we lost in 1991," said Rahman Aljebouri, who lives in Washington and has two brothers, four sisters and many nephews and nieces in Iraq. "If we don't get rid of that dictator, my family will never have a moment of peace."

Some exiles hope they will be able to return to Iraq for the first time in decades.

"We are excited because the removal of this tyrant looks very imminent. ... And Iraqis who have been living abroad may have a chance to go home and see family," said Mostafa al-Qazwini, leader of the Islamic Educational Center of Orange County in Costa Mesa, Calif.

Still, such hopes are often tempered by feelings of dread.

"On one hand, I'm so close to seeing Iraq free. On the other, I don't know if my family will be there anymore or if I will see them again," Aljebouri said.

Aljebouri said he tried to call his family in Iraq on Monday night right after Bush's speech but that phone lines were jammed. "I don't know when I'll talk to them next," he said.

For Hussain Bakir, the dream of a Hussein-free Iraq is more melancholy. Bakir, a chemist, left his mother and father in Iraq more than two decades ago to study in the United States and expected to return soon. But after Hussein took power, "I knew I could not be going back."

His father died in 1979, and his mother passed away in 1989. "That is my wish. To go back and pay my respects and give my condolences to the people who gave me the most kindness," he said.

Fawz Bakir also has family in Iraq, but cannot bring himself to support war. He sounds resigned as he wipes kitchen countertops in his North Laurel townhouse, which he shares with two cats and a golden Labrador.

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