US-taught Iraqis feel war's weight

Iraqi professors have close ties to Americans, but now see a wide cultural divide

They lived for years with American roommates. They studied and partied and fell in and out of love with American friends. Now, they're trying to reconcile for their children - and for themselves - a US-Iraq war that appears all but certain.

Few Iraqis can bridge the cultural divide as easily as this handful of US-educated Iraqi professors at Baghdad University. Their devotion to the people of both countries - and their wishes to spark a dialogue that might prevent war - led them to take part in a visit by 40 US academics in January.

But their thoughts these days are loaded with questions of good and evil, and their once-inspired view of American ideals is under assault. They speak with emotion, even tearfully at times. US-led regime change is not a priority for them; their preoccupation now is surviving this war - and struggling to explain it to children long imbued with a glowing sense of America.

"In our religion, we believe in fate, and that slows down our fear," says Souad Al Azzawi, dean of the school's second engineering college. She spent a decade in the US; on her desk is a Garfield coffee mug that reads, "Thank you." "But the problem is the children, how do they understand that?"

On the eve of the 1991 Gulf War, Mrs. Al Azzawi's daughter Nihal, who was 12 at the time, was dumbstruck. "Could the Americans be that wicked?" Al Azzawi recalls her daughter asking as they tried to explain that bombs were about to fall. "[Nihal] cried: 'No they won't, they are good!' She was paralyzed for hours after it began. She couldn't stand up, because the people she loved were bombing us."

Now Nihal, a PhD candidate in computer engineering, has "left this ideological stuff behind, and believes that Americans are honest, without bitterness," Al Azzawi says. "She's ready for war. She's stronger now."

To rid Iraq of any weapons of mass destruction, however, US planners say they are planning an opening air campaign with 10 times the explosive impact of the Gulf War, that heavily targets Baghdad.

"I hope they see us as people," says the increasingly anxious Nihal, in a separate interview. "It's a feeling you can't describe: You worry about yourself, and your family, and aunts and uncles in their houses - it's like your heart is in a million pieces all over the place, and you don't know how to keep it together."

A loss of dialogue

While these Iraqis find their view of America being sorely tested, they know from first-hand experience that there may be other ways to solve this crisis.

"What we all know here is the greatest problem is the loss of dialogue," says Janon Kadhim, an architecture professor whose US mother and Iraqi father met at Texas A&M University in the 1950s. She speaks with an American accent, but has lived in Iraq most of her life. Every year, her mother, an English literature teacher, brought boxes of books from the US for her students, which Mrs. Kadhim devoured.

"This is like a fight. If you don't sit down and talk about it, it gets worse and worse," says Kadhim, who, though wearing a sharp black suit, maroon-orange scarf, and gold brooch - and armed with a PhD - could easily pass for a soccer mom in the US.

"It's funny," she says of the cultural disconnect. "Why should we be sitting here trying to convince you that we are OK? Why should I have to make you feel like we are people worth living?"

Iraqis are not Iranians

One problem, these professors say, is the misperceptions that many Americans have about Iraqis. Some members of this group were in the US during the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, and draw a parallel with how Americans now view Iraqis.

"In the late 1970s, Iran used to be friend No. 1 of America, until [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini took over," says Abdulsattar Al Dabbagh, dean of the engineering college here, who studied at Colorado State University and spent seven years in the US.

"The media changed that in six months, and made every American hate every single Iranian. And now it's the same for Iraq," says Mr. Al Dabbagh, who sports a dark pinstripe suit and professorial eyeglasses. "When you speak to normal Americans, they are very friendly and understanding. We believe that if Americans knew the truth [about us], they would not support a war."

These Iraqis proved that for themselves in January, when they hosted the group of US academics, from a range of disciplines, who had never visited Iraq.

Some said they were unaware that the US bombed Iraq for four days in 1998. The group also told their Iraqi hosts that they had received a warning from the US State Department not to travel to Iraq, and that they could be fined $10,000 for doing so.

"They were against war - that's why they came," says Al Azzawi. "But they had to see, to check if they were on the right side. After five days, they said they would certainly now be stronger in rejecting the war."

"They didn't know what to expect," adds Kadhim. "They had never met an Iraqi, and you could feel that they were frightened, terrified, because they were the 'enemy.' Someone on the street gave one woman a flower, and she was shocked. They were amazed that they were treated so well here, and not as villains."

The visit ended with tearful goodbyes, which the Iraqis say reminded them of their own experiences getting to know Americans on their home turf. They tell stories about digging deeply into American culture, and laughed about Americans' infamously poor knowledge of geography.

"We know you more than you know us," says Khadim. She once told someone she was from Baghdad, and they replied that they, too, were from Bagdad - Bagdad (without an 'h'), Texas.

Numa Hamad Imara, a civil-engineering professor educated at Utah State and New Mexico State Universities, shared that experience. He once told someone he was from Baghdad, Iraq, prompting the reply: "Oh, I should go see your country in South America."

Today, Mr. Imara's time in the US has given him an acute feel for the country's post-Sept. 11 sensibilities. But he says issues like the Patriot Act are eroding the ideals that many non-Americans hold dear about the US.

"It's the American people who feel that American ideals are being betrayed by this administration, but only they can change that," Imara says. The drive toward war with Iraq, he says, is "like an obsession, not a policy."

Still, Imara says that "America makes many beautiful things," including movies that play on Iraqi TV almost every night. "My kids get upset if there is not an American movie," he says, making a groaning sound to mimic them.

A 'hardened' US

A war aside, these Iraqis note a "hardening" in the US since most of them were there - a proclivity for violence that many children are also exposed to on TV.

"What happened to Tom and Jerry?" asks Khadim. "Now cartoons are so dramatic, with good and evil, and kids are brought up to think the US is the savior of the world. Is it still the land of freedom? Sometimes we wonder.

"Have you seen the Dustin Hoffman film, 'Wag the dog'?" she continues. "I mean, do I look like a terrorist? If you didn't see us, you could believe it. But we are people with kids in school, who go to parties. We don't go around with bombs in our pockets, or chemical weapons."

When the laughter subsides, the gravity of impending war leads this group back to more sober thoughts. Memories focus on the first Gulf War.

Imara remembers seeing the results of five missiles that landed in Babylon. "We went to investigate, and found palm trees cut like cucumbers," she recalls. One house was destroyed, killing a family, with the refrigerator thrown one way, and a pajama-clad man fallen in the other. "I will never forget that scene - and America could do it again."

"The term 'collateral damage' to me means a neighbor lost a leg," says Abdul-Ilah Younis Mohammed, a civil engineer who studied at UC-Berkeley and Mexico State University, and spent 15 years in the US. His two children were born in Las Cruces, N.M. "For an American, 'collateral damage' means it doesn't matter, it's irrelevant."

Similar sentiments affected Kadhim during the 1998 bombing of Iraq. To her 6-year-old son, America meant "the place where all the goodies come from," since Kadhim's mother was from Texas. But just after the US bombing, he told Kadhim that all his friends at school "talked about hating Americans, and how could people be so evil?" Kadhim had to explain that the war was governments, not people. "My mother cried on the phone, when I told her," she says.

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