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Iraqis in America

October 4, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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ELIZABETH BRACKETT: This gritty neighborhood on Chicago’s northwest side has been a port of entry for many immigrant groups. Signs in Spanish, Korean and, increasingly, Arabic, line the bustling streets.

Many Iraqis began settling here a decade ago during and after the Gulf War. In Iraqi owned shops and restaurants, debate over U.S. policy is loud and constant.

MAN: Not today, tomorrow. Take him out from Baghdad: Saddam and his family and all his government.

ANOTHER MAN: I want to bomb Saddam. Don’t bomb civilians. Yeah, you kill… don’t kill the civilians. Kill the government.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: This man fought with the Iraqi resistance after the U.S. pulled out in 1991. Fearing for the safety of family members still in Iraq, he does not want to be identified.

He has built up a successful limousine service since arriving in 1992. He had been an engineer in Iraq and served in Hussein’s Republican Guard before defecting and fighting with the resistance in the South.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We resisted for about three weeks, and then we had no choice. We didn’t have the right weapon. We were not an organized army, just people fighting for freedom, so we had no choice but to leave.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: After spending a year in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia, he made his way to the U.S. Now he would like to see the U.S. go back to Iraq, but not without allies.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Invasion by solely and only the American forces, it doesn’t look good, but if you’re talking about all the American soldiers going into Iraq with no Iraqis, it’s not a good idea.

Some Iraqis will defend Iraq because they think this is an invasion, and they think that, you know, the United States is coming there to stay, just like, you know, the occupation of the British in the ’20s to Iraq.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: What if they went in with a multinational force and approval from the United Nations?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That’s… that’s the best way to do it. That will be very welcome by the Iraqi people.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Aiham Alsammarae is part of an earlier wave of successful Iraqi professionals who grated in the 1960s and ’70s before Hussein came to power.

He owns an international engineering company specializing in electrical power systems. He arrived in 1976 to get his Ph.D. in engineering and couldn’t return to Iraq when Hussein took over.

AIHAM ALSAMMARAE: In 1979 Saddam Hussein take over the power over there, and he did execute three of my immediate family. Two of them is my brother-in-laws and one our cousin.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Alsammarae supports regime change, no matter who brings it about.

AIHAM ALSAMMARAE: Definitely. If he doesn’t have a regime change, we will never have a democracy in Iraq. Saddam Hussein believe in one thing: Is control everything in his hands.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Should the U.S. go in alone unilaterally to try to bring about regime change?

AIHAM ALSAMMARAE: For my case, I like a change in Iraq, so if I can get help from anyone I welcome it.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Most Iraqi immigrants we spoke to preferred a multinational effort, but they didn’t think the rest of the Arab world would react badly to a U.S.-only attack.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Do you think if the U.S. invades, it could inflame the Arab world and there would be more terrorism?

JOHN SALIBA: If you get rid of Saddam, you get rid of the… like they say, you get rid of the head people that supply the money and all that… it stops right there.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: In the neighborhood mosque frequented by Iraqi immigrants, almost everyone wants Saddam Hussein overthrown because of his treatment of the Iraqi people, though few see him as a threat to the United States.

Emad Alzurufi dropped out of college in Iraq to fight with the Resistance in 1991. He wants Hussein out, but he’s very worried about civilian casualties that could result from a U.S. attack.

EMAD ALZURUFI: I’m very concerned about that, you know, because as we see… as we know, all of us, you know, what happened in 1991. United States attacked in every single place, you know, bridge, you know, companies, you know, power station, water station, a lot of places, you know, very important for the civilian, you know, to use.

And what the companies got to do with Saddam Hussein? The United States by their… they knows where he is. They know very well where he is. Why they don’t go and follow him and, you know, take him out? Why they didn’t finish the job in 1991?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: So you’d like to see something that just goes after Saddam Hussein?

EMAD ALZURUFI: They could go just, you know, after him and take him out of the country or, you know, or kill him or do whatever is necessary, you know, to just, you know, get him, you know, go out of the country.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But not attack the country?

EMAD ALZURUFI: Not attack the country and not hurt the civilians.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: This woman also did not want to be identified. She fears that an attack on Iraq would be devastating for civilians.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I do have family there. I’m afraid. I’m very… and they, they’re afraid too. They have no idea what’s going on, because like I said, the war will affect everybody. It’s not civilian, it’s not Baghdad only. It’s everybody.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Can you communicate at all with your family now?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It’s very difficult, especially in my case. I mentioned before, I can’t. I don’t want them to be in trouble.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: She would like to see Hussein overthrown, but questions the motives of the U.S.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The United States is… what they are doing is not something for the Iraqis. That everybody believes. United States, they are doing it for the… for the oil, and that’s what the oil company is doing right now, is everything is with the oil. I mean, oil talks; it’s not something for the people.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: For these people, pictures keep alive the memory of Hussein’s chemical weapons attack on the Kurds in 1988. Some say they lost friends in the gas attacks after the uprising following the end of the Gulf War. They believe Hussein would use chemical weapons against any opponent. Still, many here were anxious to return to Iraq to fight.

Several had this form from the Iraqi National Congress, the umbrella group for the opposition, recruiting volunteers. The form asks such things as “Have you served in the military before?”; “What kind of weapons were you trained on?”; and, “Which Iraqi cities do you know well?”

The owner of the limousine company was thinking hard about signing up. He says it would not take long to train the thousands of expatriate Iraqis he is sure will answer the call.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They move very fast, and they are serious about… I think in a matter of three months for training, and from this time it should be… because every Iraqi knows how to use a machine gun, so that’s no… three months, I think this army will be ready to go.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: How much time do you spend thinking about this?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Day and night. Every day, every night. I think about it all the time. It’s on my mind. It’s affecting my daily life, my family life every day. I can’t get it out of my mind. It’s on my mind all the time. I won’t be settled or rested till this thing is over.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Alsammarae has spent many hours thinking about what will happen in Iraq if Hussein is overthrown. He has met with others active in the Iraqi opposition, with the state department recently picking up the tab for travel, to craft a plan for a post- Hussein Iraq.

AIHAM ALSAMMARAE: The government is between one year to three years, okay? And this government will push in the beginning to start making the constitution in the first year; and the constitution, which is rough like the democracy and all these things.

The second year, we are trying to start electing the local governments and all this representatives and… and… and judges and whatever, okay? And the third year, we are going to elect the president or prime minister or the king, whatever, whatever the people decide in that time.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Chicago’s Iraqi community was pleased to learn that the Bush administration is expected to ask Congress for approval to train 10,000 Iraqi volunteers to assist the U.S. military if an attack on Iraq occurs.