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Iraqi exiles consider returning to their homeland

DEARBORN, Mich.—Ehsam Al-Nassiri, 18, looks and sounds like an American. He wears baggy blue jeans, trims his thin beard in hip-hop style and peppers his speech with teen-age slang. But now that the regime of Saddam Hussein has dissolved, Al-Nassiri wants to go home.

To Iraq.

"My mom cries when I tell her I'm going," said Al-Nassiri, a native of Iraq who is one of approximately 150,000 Iraqi-Americans in the Detroit area. "She wants me to stay, but I want to go really bad. I love Iraq. I just love Iraq."

Iraqi exiles around the world now may ponder leaving their current homes for a land that is familiar but greatly changed.

A U.S. law enacted in 1991 prohibits American citizens, under most circumstances, from using a U.S. passport to visit Iraq, said Stuart Patt, a spokesman for the Consular Affairs Bureau of the State Department. But a U.S. resident using other means would not be barred from going to Iraq.

Al-Nassiri's parents want to visit the country from which they have been exiled for a dozen years. But stay permanently? They are not so sure. His father, Ali, has a plumbing business, and America has given them freedoms they couldn't imagine in Iraq.

The family divide is mirrored in other Iraqi homes.

Truck driver Itlaq Al-Robee, 29, left Iraq in 1991. For now, he just wants to see his homeland again. But his wife, who has been out of Iraq for a year, wants to return permanently.

"I don't know if I want to live there," Al-Robee said, standing next to a black sport utility vehicle painted with the words "Saddam Die." "It won't be easy."

But Al-Nassiri is certain that he wants to return for good, even though he has little memory of his native land. Now a high school senior, he was born in Kirkuk in northern Iraq. He was 6 when he and his family fled in 1991 after Saddam crushed an uprising by Iraqi Shiites.

"I only remember two streets, that's it," Al-Nassiri said. "The street where we lived behind a school and the street where my grandparents lived. It smelled beautiful.

"I love America, but I don't care if you gave me all of its wealth, I still want to go to Iraq."

Hachem Alswaychet, the 40-year-old owner of a truck company, said he wants to return to help fight what remains of the regime's loyalists.

"I'm ready to go now," he said. "Let us go back and help."

For some, the solution might be a life divided between Iraq and America.

"Maybe I'll live six months here and six months in Iraq," said truck driver Hafez Al-Hilfy, 36, who spoke while visiting the Karbalaa Islamic Educational Center in Dearborn, Mich. "I have good American friends here. They help me a lot. But I want to see my family. I miss my parents. Sometimes, I'm confused."

The center's leader, Sheikh Husham Al-Husainy, also is torn. He has close ties to Shiite leaders in Iraq, and has been in exile for 20 years.

Will he go back?

"We'll see," he said. "Half of my life was in Iraq. Half my life in America. I'll go wherever I can serve better.

"I want to build a bridge of communication, between Christian and Muslim, West and East, American and Arab," he said. "But I don't know which end of the bridge I'll be on."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.