When Mohamed fled Baghdad 16 years ago in an April downpour, he paused at the door of the green-and-white Iraqi Airways plane, took one last look at the gray city fallen under the thrall of an oppressive regime, and vowed never to return.

He never did. He has since lived in three countries, building a career as a systems analyst, keeping in touch with family by mail and telephone. It was by phone that he learned, four years ago, about the murder of a close friend.

The man's father had unwisely allowed himself to be overheard criticizing Saddam Hussein. In due course, soldiers came for him. They took two of his friends, too, and his adult son. Days passed without word.

Then four corpses were returned to four doorsteps. Four widows were instructed to vacate their homes, immediately.

Army bulldozers arrived and leveled four houses. Thus was dissension quelled.

Mohamed, who lives in New York now, asks that his last name not be used because he fears for the lives of relations still in Iraq. His hatred for the Iraqi dictator still smolders. He wants that understood.

He wants this understood too: In this war, he is solidly behind Saddam.

"I believe Kuwait is being occupied illegally by Iraq," he says. "But I would stand with Saddam against America."

Gravely thin, graying, the 38-year-old computer expert sucks intently on a cigarette -- he is a chain smoker these days -- and explains:

"If the U.S. would say we want to rid the Iraqis of these atrocities, I would be the first to go fight with them against even my cousin who is forced to serve in the Iraqi army. But America is not saying that. I look at it as Saddam versus Israel, or as the U.S. and Israel versus the Arabs. ... It is for my country, and for Palestine."

Americans, he is told, would find his stance bewildering, even incomprehensible.

"The U.S.," he says, grimly, "will never understand Arab emotions."

Arab emotions -- at least the emotions of Arabs in the United States -- have never been as tested and tormented as they are today.

"Cousins are fighting cousins," said Great Falls physician Salem Mansour. "I know a guy who has two nephews in the Iraqi army and one nephew in the U.S. Marines."

Loyalty to America and compassion for their countrymen create difficult incompatibilities.

Even before the war, many members of the Iraqi American community opposed the United Nations embargo imposed upon Iraq last fall because it limited supplies of food and medication. This wasn't a theoretical concern. Majid Alousi, 65, a physician who has lived in Detroit since 1956, worries about his sister who is ill and cannot get proper medical treatment. "She's half paralyzed and I cannot help her," he said.

All the Iraqi Americans interviewed for this story -- including Mohamed -- expressed loyalty to the United States, and say they often vote Republican.

Family contact has been difficult since the crisis began. Mail service between the United States and Iraq has been suspended since August, and phone contact has become increasingly difficult. Ammar Hindi, a 28-year-old systems analyst who lives in Rosslyn, occasionally receives a 10-minute call from his parents in Baghdad. "Actually we have never said goodbye during any of those telephone calls because we are in the middle of something and the line disconnects."

Salam Al Marayati, 30, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, left Iraq with his parents in 1964. He says hostages and others who have recently left Iraq told him that the children aren't getting medicine and milk is scarce. "The people of Iraq have nothing to do with the decisions of Saddam ... and the punishment that is being levied against Iraq is being concentrated on the people and not the rulers," Al Marayati said.

Iraqi Americans are unnerved by the FBI's new policy of questioning them to gather information about possible terrorist activity. "This signals to me that my American citizenship is worthless," said a 25-year-old first-generation Iraqi American professional in Washington. "What it all boils down to," she said bitterly, "is where your parents are born.

"I should hope that the FBI would be sophisticated enough to separate innocent businessmen in Detroit from international spies in Germany. And if suspicions are being raised simply based upon where you, your parents or grandparents were born then I suggest the FBI ring up Senator {George} Mitchell and John Sununu," she said.

"People are already worried about the possibility of internment camps for Iraqis," said Hindi. "At work, people have been really nice," he said. He's not sure it will last now that hostilities have begun: "I was here in 1981 and saw what Iranians with me in school had to go through."

Even before the bombing, the press had reported isolated incidents of harassment. A man in New York had his tires slashed; a Palestinian in Boston was frightened into leaving his home and moving to another neighborhood because of threats to him and his family.

"The Iraqi community is paranoid and at this time silence will just mean a repetition of the past. They have to come out and speak because that is their only chance to mobilize and galvanize the people against this brutal dictator," said Al Marayati.

Basima Bezirgan, Middle East librarian at the University of Chicago, said, "Either way it hurts. I have these two homes and these two homes are fighting with each other. And I feel pain from both sides."

The pain is palpable. And sometimes, it is delivered in the most heartbreaking ways.

In a fashionable Manhattan neighborhood last month, a 4-year-old came home from nursery school, recited the events of his day, bounced on the sofa and informed his mother that "Iraqis are bad."

She stiffened. She is an American citizen, married to a Columbia University professor. She is also a native Iraqi. Her son is half Iraqi.

Calmly, the woman reminded the boy about who she was, and who he was, and how his grandparents were born in Baghdad. This connected. He had evidently heard of Baghdad in school.

"Baghdad," he said, "is a bad place."

She could not wrest this notion from him, nor could she dissuade him of his simple solution to this pressing problem of Iraqis.

"We have to kill them," he said.