EL CAJON, CALIF. — GRAB some refreshment, we're celebrating,'' says Sabah Gewarges, a real estate broker and member of the second-largest Iraqi community in the United States. In his small office near a string of Iraqi-owned businesses here, Mr. Gewarges and Iraqi-American colleagues have been riveted to radio reports of the systematic bombing of their one-time homeland. ``The quicker and the bigger the retaliation [toward Iraq] the better - the sooner our families and friends can throw off the chains of this madman, Hussein,'' says Gewarges.
Adds Amer Karmo, president of the Babylon Chaldean Iraqi-American Association: ``Saddam Hussein is not Iraq, though that is all America has been hearing from its media.''
Mr. Karmo, Gewarges, and most of the estimated 60,000 Iraqis who have migrated to the US in the past few decades, are Roman Catholic Chaldeans, descendants of a Semitic people who settled in Babylonia in about 1000 BC. Ninety percent of Iraq's 16 million-plus population is Muslim. The more than half-million Chaldean Christians that remain include Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz.
Residents of this small suburb of San Diego are very aware of the concentration of Iraqis - second in number only to that in Detroit - in their midst. Most of the Iraqis here run small businesses - including restaurants, liquor stores, car washes, and garages.
If these Iraqi-Americans, most of them US citizens, feel any divided loyalty between their home and adopted countries, they are not admitting it to the many media representatives who have descended on this community in recent weeks.
``We love our [former] country and the families and friends that remain,'' says Ray Daniel, who grew up in a town 300 miles north of Baghdad. ``But we are first and foremost Americans. After all, this is the country that allows us to be who we are.''
However, Bob Hanna, an Iraqi property manager, says: ``Ever since I have come here, I have been astonished at [Americans'] lack of knowledge about the outside world.'' He fears that, should Americans want to lash out at Iraq, the Chaldean community might be victimized.
An Iraqi-owned liquor store across the boulevard from his office was bombed and burned in what police are calling arson but several residents attribute to anti-Iraq backlash. Two members of the Babylon Chaldean Iraqi American Association were recently interviewed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Mr. Hanna says several of his colleagues have been threatened anonymously. ``The callers said, `Once the body bags come to the states, we are going to attack you [and] kill you','' according to Hanna. He says one of his friends has received threats against his family and is wearing a bullet-proof vest while working in his local shop.
Though few Iraqi Americans here are as vocal as Mr. Gewarges in condemning Hussein, most see the five-month ordeal in the Persian Gulf coming to an end with the present leader out of the picture.
``But as long as there is Hussein, there is instability in Iraq and the whole region.''
``We are praying day in and out that our families will not be hit by the bombing raids,'' says a man eating kabobs and rice at the local Chaldean association's headquarters. ``If the Iraqi authorities see us on CNN, you can be sure they will lash out at our namesakes in Iraq.''
``We cannot contact them [their families] anymore,'' laments Daniel, who says he talked to relative the morning before the first US attack but has had no word since. ``It is a heartbreaking situation, but what are you going to do? We pray.''
A center of activity for the Iraqi population here is the social club where 400 members and their families come to dine, enjoy entertainment, and play games such as cards and backgammon. Of late, the television has flickered in the corner with ubiquitous reports of bombing raids.
All the members here have relatives in Iraq, says Karmo.
And some have relatives who are members of the US armed forces in the Gulf war zone.