EL CAJON, CALIF. — Inside the Chaldean Iraqi American Club, a social center for expatriate Iraqis here, members gather around card tables draped in white tablecloths. Some sip hot tea and slather pita bread with hummus. Others play cards and backgammon - or talk.
"Even now, in the 11th hour of Saddam's life, people are scared to come out and speak what's in their hearts," says Raymond Barno, an opposition activist here for 33 years.
He explains why, even half a world away from Baghdad in this quiet San Diego suburb - the second-largest enclave of Iraqi Americans in the US - the shadow of Saddam Hussein looms. They fear reprisals of torture, death, or abduction - for themselves or family still in Iraq - should they criticize him openly. Only 53 of more than 30,000 expatriates here joined a recent rally calling for Mr. Hussein's ouster.
"We are celebrating because we do believe this is finally it for Saddam, we do believe young Bush will finish his father's business," says Mr. Barno, who runs a translation and interpreting service. "But we are being more cautious.... In 1991 Bush [Sr.] won and everyone said Saddam is finished ... but he was back in a month and many of those who participated in celebrations and uprisings were killed."
If the possible invasion of Iraq is front-page news across America, it is virtually the only topic of conversation here.
After two large waves of Iraqi immigration in the past 35 years - the first when Hussein took power and the second after the Gulf War in 1991 - the Iraqi population in America tops 75,000.
Now, with news of opposition groups meeting in London last weekend to discuss leadership in a post-Hussein Iraq, these immigrants are combing international newspapers for hints that their dream of the past three decades may finally come true. And for now, they care less about how Iraq is run after Hussein than about simply getting him out.
"We don't care if UN inspectors find any weapons of mass destruction, we don't care if they find any Hussein connections to Al Qaeda, we don't care if the US wants to rewrite the map of the Middle East for its own purposes," says John Kalabat, a retired professor of Arabic and Aramaic at San Diego City College, who fled because of death threats when the Baath Party took control of Iraq in the 1960s. "We want Saddam out, and our people free to develop a democracy."
Like Mr. Kalabat, the vast majority of Iraqi-Americans are Chaldean, Roman Catholic descendants of a Semitic people who settled in Babylonia. But there are also large pockets of Arab Muslims and Kurds who echo Kalabat's sentiments. All tell stories of how Hussein has repressed their ethnic groups.
"What group inside Iraq has not been repressed by Saddam?" asks octogenarian Simon Matti, sipping dark tea from a crystal glass. "We are all together in our wish to have Saddam gone and our people free."
They also agree that UN inspectors will probably never find the "smoking gun" (i.e. biological, nuclear, or chemical weapons) necessary to bolster world and UN support of war efforts.
"Iraq definitely has them," says Mr. Matti. "But the inspectors will never find them. Saddam has had four years to bury them beneath mosques and cemeteries."
Of about 21 million people within Iraq (about 5 million reside in exile), 4 million are Kurds, 1.5 million are Chaldean (including Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz) and the rest are Arab. Among those Arabs are Hussein's ruling elite - about 18 percent of the population - known as Sunni Muslim. The rest are Shiite Muslim.
The largest American concentrations of Iraqis are in Detroit, Chicago, and here, and most expatriates run small businesses, from restaurants to car washes. From this club, to the Babylon Barber shop across the street to the Shish Kabob restaurant, American flags wave prominently.
"If Saddam fell tonight, you would see over 90 percent of my Iraqi colleagues stay here in America," says Barno. "We feel we are American as much as Iraqi." His office, blocks away, is adorned with both a US flag and a 9/11 remembrance plaque with the Twin Towers still standing. "I feel as patriotic as anyone here in America about what a great country this is," he says.
Though experts say the great majority of expatriates agree about ousting Hussein and creating some sort of democratic republic, many remain fearful of saying so.
Iraqi expatriates "are largely people who left Iraq under undesirable or intolerable circumstances and have relatives still there who continue to experience an extremely repressive society," says Ben Schiff, who teaches Middle East politics at Oberlin College. "They are extremely resentful of the Hussein regime but are understandably careful of how and when they say so."
Like Barno, most have stories of repression - from jail time in Iraq to relatives who have disappeared - that led them to move to America.
"I wrote in one of my columns that Iraq ought to be a democracy, and the Baaths [the ruling party] put me in jail for a year," says Sabah Sadik, a Chaldean who wrote for a Kurdish newspaper before fleeing.
"It's so very odd that even when Iraqis visit here from the homeland, they whisper when talking about the regime as if someone could be listening," says Barno. "They have seen friends disappear just for having a cigarette with someone who is a known critic of Saddam."
Most speak of the ouster of the Iraqi dictator in casual terms, as if the deed is done. But if they are cautious about their open predictions of Hussein's downfall - and their jubilation - they openly challenge media predictions that a post-Hussein Iraq will be in danger of collapse.
"That is a nasty bit of propaganda that Hussein has spent billions planting," says Labib Sultan, a professor of engineering at San Diego State University. "We do not have ethnic and religious strife in Iraq. Saddam brought the strife."
Of course, other experts warn of a gulf between immigrant sentiment and the mood in Iraq. "The view of expatriate Iraqis cannot be considered as a representative sample of Iraqi opinion of Saddam," says S. Azmat Hassan, adjunct professor of diplomacy and international relations at Seton Hall University. "The removal of Saddam may leave his diehard supporters as a problem for the new Iraqi regime."
But here in El Cajon, too, Iraqi Americans admit to fear of short-term political wrangling. Most say they'd prefer a temporary US presence to maintain stability.
In recent years, Mr. Sultan and other Iraqi intellectuals have formed the Civil Campaign for the Rights of Iraqis to establish principles of government. The group is seeking support from Washington.
"We don't have political parties which have been able to exercise and compete within a democracy," says Sultan. "That is the biggest problem we face."