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December 26, 2002
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'No Third Way' for U.S. Iraqis
* Americans who oppose Hussein and a policy that cripples their homeland say that speaking out on either front carries risks.
To Jordanians, an Iraq War Would Be Strike on Region
December 26, 2002
By Faye Fiore, Times Staff Writer
WASHINGTON -- It was a Saturday morning in October and Anas Shallal should have been at one of the five restaurants he owns with his brother here, making sure the produce was ordered for brunch and checking the list of dinner reservations.
But Bush's signature was fresh on a United Nations resolution threatening the use of force against the country where Shallal was born, where some of his relatives still live. So he found himself in his silver Camry headed for the White House gates to protest the possibility of another war in Iraq.
Of the tens of thousands of demonstrators who crowded the rain-soaked Mall that day, Shallal was one of a handful who could claim Iraq as a birthplace. As the nation debates the wisdom of war, actors, feminists and even Teamsters are weighing in. But the voices seldom heard are those of Iraqi Americans.
"If you call Iraqis for an opinion poll, most will hang up," Shallal said. "They are suspicious, uncomfortable about expressing their opinions, even to other Iraqis. They've learned it doesn't pay."
Experts are not even sure how many Iraqi nationals live in the U.S. -- much less their political leanings -- but estimates range from 200,000 to 400,000. Some are concentrated in pockets around Detroit, San Diego, Chicago and New York; others are scattered across the nation.
This diverse and undefined population includes business and military elite who were ruined by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and want their due. There are recent refugees who fled from his rule after the Persian Gulf War and want to go home. There are the bankers, physicists, doctors and investors, well-educated American citizens who came here decades ago and have no intention of ever moving back -- the products of two cultures who go to mosques and movie theaters, eat pizza as often as kebabs and send their children to American schools during the week, Arabic school on Sundays.
United Against Hussein
If they have anything in common, it is probably a desire to see Hussein fall. The pipelines from home are clogged with stories of misery, the results of U.S.-imposed sanctions many believe are harder on the Iraqi people than on their brutal leader. The cousin dead from food poisoning, released by a hospital too depleted to treat her. The grandmother dead for lack of heart medication. The nephew dead for lack of insulin.
The wealthier ones send their American dollars home -- less than $200 supports a family of five for a month. And some have nightmares, literally, of bombs falling on Baghdad.
But when it comes to the question of ending Hussein's 23-year lock on the country, many see only two choices: Endorse a U.S. policy of sanctions and force that could bomb Iraq back to the Stone Age, or back a murderous dictator.
"There is no third way," explained James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute. "Ordinary Iraqis here and there are caught between the anvil of a brutal regime and the hammer of a brutal sanctions policy. You're either going to get smashed by the anvil or smashed by the hammer."
Clearly, there is a base of support for military action, particularly among Iraqi intellectuals forced out by Hussein and the more recent refugees still struggling for a foothold here. Indeed, when President Bush visited Nashville several weeks ago, home to about 7,800 Iraqis and Kurds, his get-tough-on-Hussein policy was cheered by an audience that included many Iraqi nationals.
"Saddam is a dangerous man. He needs to be gone very soon. What are the Iraqi people going to do?" said Mohammed Albadran, program manager for the Iraqi House of Nashville, an assistance group for immigrants.
The Iraqi National Congress, the country's main opposition party in exile, tends to have the ear of officials in the West. But it represents only one facet of Iraqi public opinion, experts say.
"The Bush administration operates under the delusion that the majority of Iraqi Americans favor a war," said Khalil Jahshan, executive vice president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington. "I met recently with some State Department officials who said 80[%] to 90% of Iraqi American leaders were with them. I said, 'What ... are you talking about?' Clearly, we swim in different circles."
Yet for many Iraqi Americans, the idea of protesting government policy is dangerous, particularly after last year's terrorist attacks that made so many Arabs suspect. A war could be costly for them on both ends: There, friends and family live in the path of American bombs; here, they are poised to become the face of the new enemy.
"Many Iraqis who came here after the '70s don't have a sense of political involvement," said Shallal, a 47-year-old father of four. "In Iraq, there is a fear that if you speak too much, somebody is going to come knocking at your door."
As a result, many Iraqi nationals live in quiet distrust of two governments -- one that kills families of critics in exile, another known for jailing immigrants when national security is compromised. Recent reports that Washington is monitoring thousands of Iraqis in the United States as part of its war on terrorism served to underscore the apprehension. An e-mail with the news circulated through the community under the heading: "Worst Fears Confirmed."
The climate is disconcerting even for Shallal and his older brother, Yasir, seasoned activists who came to the U.S. as teenagers and openly opposed the 1991 Gulf War.
"It is very intimidating, very chilling," Yasir Shallal, 48, a successful builder and the father of three, said of Washington's watchful eye. "It tells me if I disagree with U.S. policy, my loyalty is in question. People who have lived here a very long time are saying we thought we were living in a democracy, and today we're not so sure. And then people wonder why nobody speaks out."
Which is why the 100 or so Iraqi nationals who gathered on the Mall when the rain yielded to a bright sky that October Saturday in Washington seemed to some not a paltry turnout at all, but a cause for celebration.
It is just after 9 p.m. and a pot of chai tea is cooking on the stove in a northern Virginia home. That's the Iraqi way: Leave it on a slow burn, all day. Two children are upstairs doing homework. The house is warm and comfortable and expansive, fruits of American affluence that come from first-rate educations. The wife is a pharmacist, her husband a prosperous contractor. They live a mile or so from Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.
The phone rings. An elderly relative in Baghdad needs medication for fluid on her knees. Could they send some? The wife puts the phone down in despair; appeals like this come all the time from distant family. But how can she help them when she couldn't help her own mother, who suffered a stroke at 63 and died four agonizing years later for lack of the remedies her daughter held in her hands every day?
"It was devastating not to be able to help her," she says, curled up on a soft leather couch. "You can't trust the mail there. I had to find someone who was traveling overseas to take it to her. But I could only get it there about twice a year.
"It wasn't enough. She would run out, and then they would switch her to whatever other medicine they could find."
In desperation, her mother was brought to the U.S., a journey that required a 12-hour car ride to Jordan to avoid Iraq's "no-fly" zone, then a long flight overseas. She landed in a state of delirium and died in a Baltimore hospital three days later while her children were deciding whether doctors should amputate her legs.
"If not for the sanctions, she would never have gotten that sick," the woman says. "I'm not angry at the U.S. government, just sad. Why do those innocent people have to suffer so much?"
She reads, she votes, she pays taxes. She teaches her children to be good citizens. She marches in protest of another war. She condemns the sanctions that made her family and friends destitute overnight, forcing them to sell their furniture, artwork, interior doors and, in extreme cases, their kidneys.
But she can't reveal her name. She can't afford to be that public. Not with a widowed father alone in Baghdad, a sitting duck for a vengeful dictator. Not when she suspects an American government is watching.
Her apprehension is not uncommon, said Ziad Asali, executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "The Iraqis are the most intimidated of all the Arab people -- by far," a reticence rooted in the country's history, Asali said.
When Iraq's current boundaries were carved out of the Ottoman Empire in 1920, a collection of ethnicities, cultures and religions were lassoed into one nation -- Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni Muslims, and a Christian minority -- creating a nationality that was never very cohesive. The British governed it with a brutal military designed to keep internal control, setting up a model for a succession of iron-fisted rulers, said Ali Abunimah, vice president of the Arab-American Action Network in Chicago.
The last two decades in Iraq have been spent in turmoil: eight years of war with Iran, a Gulf War that bombed to oblivion parts of a country twice the size of Idaho, and a decade of economic sanctions that have contributed to the deaths of half a million people, by some estimates.
In that time, the middle class virtually disappeared. Iraq has long been known in the Arab world as a nation of intellectuals -- as the saying goes, "The Egyptians write, the Lebanese publish and the Iraqis read." But most of the intellectuals have fled.
The dinar once worth $3 is now nearly worthless. Once-exemplary hospitals make do without blankets. And many fear that even a war designed to spare civilians will harm them one way or another, if not by stray shrapnel then by a demolished infrastructure that means no power, ruined roads, little food, contaminated water.
"People want to get rid of Saddam but without having their people pay a bigger price," said Zogby of the Arab American Institute. "But no one has brought them in to talk to them. And, post-9/11, it will not be easy for them to come together to say, 'We don't want a war, but we want a U.S. policy that cares about our people.' "
That policy, many believe, should call for the U.S. to lift the economic sanctions that are holding the Iraqi people back and support an insurrection from within.
Belonging to Neither
In a hip quarter of Washington known as Dupont Circle sits Cafe Luna, one of the restaurants owned by the Shallal brothers. The menu is Mediterranean with an American flair, sort of like them.
They came here in the late 1960s when their father took a job in Washington with the Arab League, figuring they would stay two years and go home. The U.S. was exciting but hard. The English that Yasir learned at a Jesuit school in Baghdad didn't work as well as he expected; the word "paint" looked a lot like the word "pants." When he made the football team, he was the first in his high school's history to kick soccer-style, using the side of his foot instead of the front. It made him something of a team novelty, and before long, he belonged to two nations instead of one. That was a good thing, until the two nations locked horns.
Relations broke between the U.S. and Iraq after the 1967 Middle East War and their father lost his diplomatic job. There would be no moving back. Trips home were dangerous. The last time Yasir visited was 1979; Anas never did return.
"It's a loss," Yasir says over an afternoon cup of coffee. "You are like a tourist when you go back, because you are no longer the same person; you are an American. But sometimes you feel out of place here. You belong to both, and yet you don't belong to either."
When the Gulf War erupted in 1991, Yasir and his brother watched the bombing of Baghdad on television, the screen blinking with every explosive thud. Most Americans saw a tyrant's headquarters getting just deserts. They saw a 5,000-year-old ancestral home under assault: birthplace of the first civilization in the history of humanity; the center of learning, philosophy, architecture and medicine in the Middle Ages; the land where writing was invented.
"The whole idea of Iraq has been stolen from underneath us. Iraq is not just Saddam Hussein," Anas Shallalsays. "Every fifth-grader studies Mesopotamia -- the cradle of civilization -- but how many of them connect that with modern-day Iraq? If you are going to bomb this land you are bound to destroy the ruins of an ancient civilization. In Iraq, you trip over ruins."
Shortly after the war, they formed the Mesopotamia Cultural Society to promote Iraq's ancient and modern culture. With the help of a local congressman, Iraqi art was displayed in the Capitol rotunda. The group met several times in the early 1990s, then petered out as U.S. foreign policy turned its attentions elsewhere.
Now Baghdad is back on the national radar, and Shallal thought about reviving the old group.
He floated the idea with one of the original members, asking if he would go on a local talk show to remind people that Hussein is not the face of Iraq, but a blip in the history of an ancient and wondrous place.
The answer was no.
He didn't bother to ask the rest.
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