For Iraqi Americans, Joy and Fear

Times Staff Writer

All day they had anxiously monitored Web sites and chat rooms for news about the military strike to come. They flipped between American and Iraqi satellite television, ate dates and goat cheese and talked excitedly about the moment.

When it came, the home in Tustin erupted in wild cheers.

They clapped. They danced, and one woman wrapped herself in the red, white and black Iraqi flag. They chanted in Arabic: "This is the moment we've been waiting for!"

Amid the celebration, one woman sobbed. Faiza Latif, 60, has not seen her son for 20 years, ever since he was detained by Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's security forces. She believes he is still alive in a Baghdad prison.

"Who will feed him?" she murmured. "Who will feed him?"

As U.S.-led forces opened fire against Baghdad, many Iraqi Americans in Southern California, like the roughly four dozen gathered here, were riven by complex emotions.

Forced to flee after losing homes, jobs and family members to Hussein's regime, many called this their long-awaited "day of liberation." But most have close family and friends still in Iraq, and they fear for their safety.

Irvine resident Sue Yousif is the 71-year-old matriarch of a family that fled Iraq 30 years ago. Her late husband Mahdi, a diplomat, had refused to join Hussein's Baath Party. For the past two weeks, Yousif has tried without success to call her 90-year-old mother. Family members in Iraq told her they planned to turn off the elderly woman's hearing aid so she would be less frightened when the bombing began.

Yousif's sister, too, is trapped in Baghdad because the government will not allow her husband, a physician, to leave.

In their last call together, Yousif said, her sister began to sob, begging the family to pray for her. In the last card Yousif received, her sister wrote: "You are the only people I have in this world. If we die, just remember us."

Despite her fears for loved ones, Yousif said she is ecstatic that the Bush administration is moving against Hussein, a man she met during her husband's diplomatic days. Her nephew was pulled off a bus in 1980 by Hussein's forces and has not been seen since. Her husband's cousin was taken in the middle of a religious march, causing his parents to "lose their minds," according to Yousif's daughter Maha.

Yousif said she knew it was time to leave her homeland the day she received an anonymous phone call from someone who had heard her complain about Hussein's rationing.

"If you talk like that again, we're going to kill your kids," she says the caller said.

"They are all terrorists," Yousif said, pointing to shots of Hussein and his top aides broadcast by Iraqi satellite television. "Every Iraqi has lost a family member to Saddam. The Iraqi people believe this is for the peace and liberation of our people to end the bloody regime of Saddam."

Sam Ali, a 48-year-old civil engineer and a Shiite Muslim, said members of his family were summarily removed from their homes and deported after Iraq launched its war against Iran. Ali said the Iraqi regime deported 200,000 Shiites because Hussein feared they would rise against him to help their fellow Shiites in Iran.

Muhammad Alnajafi, a 55-year-old Riverside jewelry retailer, was a college instructor in Iraq when officials began giving him orders about what to teach, telling him to credit Hussein with all economic and social developments in his country, he said. One day, he was approached by a university official and told he would be promoted to department head -- but only if he would join the ruling party.

"I said, 'no thanks,' " Alnajafi said.

He, too, fled the country.

Since immigrating to America, many of the exiles have become active in Iraqi liberation activities.

Other Iraqi Americans are pitching in to help draft plans to rebuild their homeland. Ali, for instance, is a member of the U.S. State Department's "Future of Iraq Project" who has advised U.S. officials on how to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure.

Yousif's daughter, Maha, an orthodontist, said she was spurred to action after the first Gulf War in 1991 failed to dislodge Hussein, who then massacred hundreds of thousands of Iraqi rebels. Her brother, Mazin, is the West Coast representative of the Iraqi National Congress, an opposition group. He and his siblings have also helped start a range of other organizations, including the Iraqi Forum for Democracy, the Iraqi Liberation Action Committee to help lobby the U.S. government and the Mesopotamia Club, a social club for Iraqis in Southern California.

"I feel very guilty because I see a lot of Iraqis fighting and dying for liberation," Mazin Yousif said. "I had to do something."

Many of the expatriates spent the day trolling for news and trading reports on the numerous Iraqi Web sites. In one chat room, someone named Joe Guitar posted a rap song satirizing Hussein:

I'm Saddam, I'm Saddam

I don't have a bomb

My days are finished

I will die

All I need is chili fries

Told that a reporter was online, the 300 members on-line started posting rapid-fire messages:

"Thank you, USA!" "We love you USA!"

One subscriber who said he was a member of the exiled opposition and would only give his online name of Asad posted this message:

"May God bless Bush forever," he said.

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