Iraqi exile group in D.C. fears for families, future

Members say war in Iraq has taken a wrong turn

War in Iraq

March 24, 2003|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - In a frantic mix of Arabic and English, the 20 or so Iraqi exiles talked about everything from the safety of their families - most of them still in Baghdad - to the most recent targets of the air raids.

Gathered at a Georgetown rowhouse yesterday morning, the Iraqi National Group, as the exiles call themselves, meets once a month to plan for what they hope will be Iraq's transition to democracy.

They support U.S. military action, but this meeting was suffused with anxiety and fear.

They watched American prisoners of war on the Arabic-language television network Al-Jazeera, heard news of more heavy bombing in Baghdad and reports of American troops meeting fierce Iraqi resistance.

"Against all of our expectations, the Iraqi army has not been turning their guns quickly enough toward Saddam [Hussein]," said Laith Kubba, the leader of the 150-member group. "This can only mean that the Iraqis have become suspicious of what's happening."

Under Kubba's leadership, the Iraqi National Group has developed a 14-point plan for a post-Hussein Iraq, one he has shared with President Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and the State Department. It can only be realized if the fighting goes as planned - particularly in Baghdad, where U.S. troops face the prospect of deadly urban warfare.

Kubba talked about the group's concern that the war took a wrong turn over the past 24 hours, as the U.S. military reported encountering "sharp opposition."

"Politicians over here are coming under fire to end this war quickly, and I think this is why they are using more force than is necessary," he said. "This will only make the days after all this that much harder. In my assessment, it's suicidal for the U.S. to substitute skill, patience and time with might. If we do this, the Iraqis will not trust the U.S."

Sitting around a large wooden table covered in papers and maps of Iraq, the group lamented the fact that the U.S. military briefly raised an American flag over the port city of Umm Qasr - even though it was quickly lowered in recognition that Iraq remains a sovereign country.

"When they [Iraqis] see this flag, they think that what's happening is not liberation, it is occupation," said Rahman Aljebiouri, shaking his head solemnly. "We are afraid that the people of Iraq are thinking that the U.S. is going to deceive them again."

"That was such a stupid mistake," agreed Kubba. "You see, the Iraqis hate Saddam, but no one welcomes occupation. It's human instinct to resist it. And the American flag comes with a lot of baggage - sanctions, the gulf war."

The group also expressed shock at the extensive bombing of Baghdad. Amid constant cell phone calls from friends and family in Iraq and Jordan, they exchanged anecdotes about how much damage has been done to the city. The bombs are so heavy, they said, that people who live miles away are being tossed out of bed by the explosions. Most of the windows in Baghdad have been blown out.

In the basement of the Georgetown house, owned by Dr. Shawki al-Attar, a pediatrician in Silver Spring, the group gathered around a computer screen to look at an aerial photograph of Baghdad. At the click of a mouse, each of them zoomed in on the homes of family and friends to try and calculate how close they are to the areas of the most extensive damage.

"I can't even watch these bombs fall anymore on the television," said one member, who declined to give his name for fear that his family in Baghdad would be harmed. "I can't even describe how painful it is to watch."

Many of them remembered taking naps with their families in the cool comfort of their basements during the summers in Baghdad. Now, they said, those basements are being used as bomb shelters.

The Iraqi National Group plans to organize a trip to Baghdad as soon as Hussein's regime falls to help install a democratic leadership. But for now, members said, they are trying not to think too far ahead and hoping that the Bush administration will follow through with its promise to win the trust of Iraqis and help rebuild their war-torn homeland.

"There should only be one main mission for now," said al-Attar. "This should be to get the people's support, because that will be what will get rid of Saddam."

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