For Arab-Americans, Iraq War Is Personal

As American and British troops close in on Baghdad, Arab Americans are going through anguish in a special way. Not only are their sons and daughters serving in the U.S. military like the children of other Americans, but the war also is unfolding in their homelands, where loved ones still live.

An estimated 3,500 Arab Americans are serving in the U.S. Armed Forces, and most of them are now stationed in the Gulf region. Among the country's estimated three million Americans of Arab origin, the war brings different worries according to countries of origin. With the exception of the Iraqi refugees who came to America after the first Gulf War, often fleeing Saddam Hussein, Arab Americans are overwhelmingly against the war.

U.S.-born Michigan journalist and activist Maysoon Khatib looks at current events personally. "Every time I pick up my 7-year-old daughter from school and ask her about her day and her homework, I can't help thinking what Iraqi mothers are asking their children in a time like this," she says. "Where to hide from bombs? Where to get food and clean water or where to go if you don't find your parents?"

Hussein Ibish, communications director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), laments what he calls an unnecessary war that endangers American and Iraqi lives. Ibish predicts the war will worsen the frustration of Arabs. A recent poll conducted by Zogby International shows a dramatic drop in Arab public approval of U.S. policies over the last year, to single-digit percentages.

Arab American opinions generally reflect the sentiments of Arabs in the home countries. Even though many do not support Saddam Hussein, they see the American government applying a Middle East policy that is unfair to Arab states, and a double standard when it comes to Israel.

The perception that Washington blindly supports the Israeli government's occupation of Palestinian and Arab lands fans the flames of extremism throughout the Arab world. For Abdel Basset Hubeishi, a political refugee from Yemen and president of Arabic House in San Francisco, the U.S. stance provokes mixed feelings about the Iraq war.

"Getting rid of Saddam and all oppressive regimes is the best thing for overcoming the stagnation in the region, but are we to believe that the U.S. will apply the same standard when it comes to the Israeli occupation, and at what cost will the war be fought?" Hubeishi argues. Others worry about what the Sharon government is going to do to Palestinians under occupation when the world's attention is on Iraq.

John Zogby, a well-known pollster and president of the Zogby International consulting firm and a fourth-generation Arab American from a Christian family, says the community has a "multilayered frustration" at what they see as the U.S. government's lack of desire to understand the real needs of the region.

There is a widespread feeling in the community, says Zogby, that American officials "always talk of the American interest" with no regard whatsoever for the interests of the Arab people.

Meanwhile, the Arab American community keeps a sharp eye on the effects of the war here at home. Hassan Jaber, deputy director of Access, the country's largest Arab American social and economic service agency located in Dearborn, Michigan says the community is worried about civil rights that have been curtailed since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Many Arab Americans who voted for President George W. Bush are feeling deep regret in addition to frustration when they perceive that his administration is taking away their civil rights. Bush promised during his campaign to end racial profiling and secret surveillance of Arab Americans, but these became worse for Arabs after 9/11. Zogby points out that this recent dismay comes on top of their longstanding frustration over U.S. Middle East policy, because to Arabs and Arab Americans the Palestinian issue is not only political, but also deeply personal.

Iraqi refugees who left their country after the first Gulf War tend to view the war differently. "No one likes wars, but our first concern is to get rid of Saddam Hussein and no one could do that but the American forces," says Baqer Al-Baaj, assistant director of Karbalaa, a Michigan-based Iraqi Islamic organization. Baaj, who emigrated from South Iraq after the 1991 uprising against Saddam was defeated, says he hopes Saddam is not replaced either by occupation or another dictator.

Sheikh Ali Al-Tamimi, the executive director of Al-Ghadir, another Iraqi Islamic organization in Detroit, says that whatever happens after Saddam will be better for Iraq.

Other Iraqi immigrants echo the predominantly antiwar sentiment of the Arab community. Dr. Abed Suneid, founder and president of Detroit's House of Arabic Culture, believes that the war is for control of Iraq's natural resources, primarily oil.

Dr. Jim Zogby, director of the Arab American Institute, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., and brother of pollster John Zogby, accuses the "neoconservatives in the American administration of planning this war to establish a permanent American presence in the strategic region and political control over its natural resources."

Mohamad Ozeir (ozeirm@aol.com) is a longtime journalist and former editor of the Arab American Journal.

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