At Skewers Restaurant, an Iraqi American establishment near Dupont Circle, last night's declaration of war against Iraq sent owner Anas Shallal storming into the street for fresh air.

Having his country in conflict with his homeland had made his head hurt and his heart burn.

"My ex-wife has two cousins fighting on the American side and I still consider them my cousins," said Shallal, 35, an Iraqi who became an American citizen five years ago. "I have a lot of first cousins and they are fighting on the Iraqi side. It is very stressful dealing with this."

There are an estimated 50,000 American citizens with Arab roots living in the Washington area -- about 5,000 of them are of Iraqi origin. Together with 250,000 Arab Americans nationwide, they claim about 3 million relatives living in Iraq, according to the American Iraqi Foundation.

Despite weeks of talk of military intervention, nothing had prepared them for the actuality of war.

"I feel like I've been hit with a baseball bat," said Fuad K. Taima, a businessman based in McLean and founder of the American Iraqi Foundation. "There is now a huge question mark in my mind: What will the emotional reaction of the Arab world be?"

Father Sam Sara, head of the linguistics department at Georgetown University and a native of Baghdad, said he no longer watched television. Too difficult. "As a double citizen, it tears you apart," he said.

When told last night that the U.S. attack on Iraq had begun, Father Sara fell silent. "I'm numb," he whispered.

Even before the bombings began, many Arab Americans complained that they had been undergoing the worse emotional and political turmoil of their lives in the United States.

Now, with air raids on their homeland broadcast into their American living rooms, their pain intensified even more.

"This was the last thing that we ever wanted to see: Arab blood shed by fellow Americans, and vice versa," said Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the National Association of Arab Americans. "I am worried about my brother-in-law, an American soldier who is en route to the gulf."

But at the same time, added Jahshan, who is Palestinian, his heart broke at reports that his mother, sisters and aunts who live in northern Israel -- are putting special tape around their windows in hopes that poison gas from a possible chemical weapon attack will not seep into their home.

"They are sitting around testing gas masks," Jahshan said. "My mother is trying to decide if the old people should have them or whether they should go to the young. Here I'm trying to decide on cereal or fried eggs for breakfast and they are deciding who will live or die."

Until Saddam's gambit, there had been an unwritten rule, adhered to by the "silent majority" of Arab Americans: stay out of inter-Arab conflicts.

But for those who had been critical of Israeli occupation of Arab land, Saddam's occupation of Kuwait could not be ignored, lest Arab Americans be accused of hypocrisy.

Some Arab American groups came out quickly in support of President Bush, who had advocated using military force in a last-resort bid to force Saddam out of Kuwait. Others expressed concern over the history of Western military intervention in the Middle East, and insisted that the conflict should be settled among Arabs.

"Unlike 1967, when the shock of the Arab-Israeli conflict brought us together, Saddam's move has served to polarize," Jahshan said.

The split deepened as the FBI began questioning Arab Americans, ostensibly to find ways to protect them in the event of widespread anti-Arab sentiment.

"In a state of emergency, the FBI has a mandate to protect all of us and I have no problem with that," Taima said.

But others saw that as the same tactic used to force Japanese Americans into concentration camps during World War II.

"I am appalled and I think it's shameful," said Shallal. "Many of us left Iraq to get away from these kinds of things."

For many Arab American residents, the pursuit of education and business enterprises had taken a back seat to the use of diplomacy to keep their worst nightmare from coming true.

"The normal calendar has ceased to exist," Taima had said before the bombing. "I spend 18 hours watching television, talking on the telephone and holding the hands of others."

Now he sits stoically in his Virginia home, clasping his own hands.

"We have just opened Pandora's Box," he said.