The Washington area's large Arab American community is deeply divided over the Persian Gulf War, with many of its estimated 80,000 members suffering from a sense of divergent loyalties.

"This is one of the most emotional crises in the history of our community," said Khalil Jashan, executive director of the National Association of Arab Americans. "The people have become very polarized."

Representing 21 Arab countries and Palestinians, the area's Arab American community has been on an emotional roller coaster since Iraq invaded Kuwait Aug. 2. The U.S.-led air war against Iraq and Iraq's missile attack on Israel this week have hardened the fissures in the local Arab American community.

"I am in mourning," said Fuad K. Taima, founder and executive vice president of the American Iraqi Foundation. "We must give diplomacy an opportunity to work."

But Quasay Alshatti, an engineering student at George Washington University from Kuwait, feels differently. "Although we regret that there is a military option used here, we believe that all other options have been exhausted," he said.

A George Washington University student from Jordan gave the debate perspective: "When I see Saddam try to unite the Arabs, I get excited," said Najee Mirshed. "But his methods are wrong . . . . Throughout all the wars, the Arabs never fully united together. They always split. I like the idea of uniting them, but to take over another country is wrong."

Washington's Arab American community is a complicated mix of religions, politics and economics. It is dominated by working-class Lebanese Americans, the first and largest Arab group to immigrate to the region. It also includes Kuwaitis, Iraqis, Jordanians and Egyptians, each with a differing perspective of the unfolding drama.

"You're talking about a complex community in this area," said Marvet Hatem, an associate professor of Middle Eastern politics who was born in Egypt. "Almost everybody condemns the occupation of Kuwait. But the systematic destruction of Iraq is very disturbing to many of us."

Conflicting loyalties have made for conflicting opinions, yet, according to Jashan, many in the community have chosen to keep their views to themselves.

Joseph Massad, a Palestinian from Jordan, angrily complains that the Bush administration justifies the attack on Iraq on moral grounds while tolerating Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

"As much as I condemn the invasion of Kuwait, I'm disappointed by the blatant double standard of the United States," he said. "They claim that war with Iraq is based on a criteria of not rewarding aggression. But they reward Israel."

As if to underscore the belief that Saddam's best hope of splitting the allied coalition is to get Israel involved in the war, Arab Americans in the Washington area seem to rally when that prospect is raised.

"All Arabs would oppose such intervention," Massad said.

"Lots of Arabs sympathize with the Palestinian people" and their suffering under Israeli occupation, Hatem said.

"This conflict has taught me that this government has a double standard," said Jehan El-Bayoumi, an Egyptian American. "It has taught me that people of color are not treated equally."

Massad said it "would be an incredible escalation" if Israel joined in the war. "I'm extremely concerned that this would make the war a protracted one," he said.

If Israel is drawn into the conflict, Massad said, the Arab people's natural inclination would be to view Iraq "as the lesser of two evils."

"On an Arab scale, Israel has caused more casualties than Iraq," he said.

Jashan said that the military operation against Iraq might also serve to crush any Israeli incentive to address the Palestinian problem.

Without Iraq's military power, no Arab country in the region comes close to having parity with Israel, Jashan said.

"Iraq had the potential to force Israel to talk," he said. "The silver lining in this dark cloud is that Saddam has managed to put the Palestinian issue on the front burner."

While distraught over the war and the impact it is having on relatives in the Middle East, some fear that they may eventually become targets of anti-Arab sentiment in this country.

"There has been no evidence so far of backlash as a result of the outbreak of violence," Jashan said. "But this type of backlash happens at the beginning of a crisis or when the American casualties start to come home."

Several said they were concerned that the heightened public concern over terrorism may fuel sentiment against Arab Americans.

All Arabs in the country are suspect, Hatem said. The constant news of the threat of terrorists "seems to reinforce in people's mind the image of Arabs as terrorists."

Anas Shallal, an Iraqi American who owns Skewers Restaurant on P Street NW, said he is seriously troubled by Bush administration policy and has taken part in anti-war demonstrations.

Shallal said he has recieved a lot of support and encouragement from friends and longtime customers, who have said they are praying for him and his family.

Staff writer Christine Spolar contributed to this report.