One night last week, six Iraqi-born men gathered around the dining room table in a sparsely furnished Georgetown rowhouse owned by a local Iraqi physician. A seventh joined them via speakerphone from Geneva.
On the wall, hand-drawn diagrams and circles illustrated links among various "working groups" devoted to education, infrastructure, the economy and other issues that would Iraq after the ouster of President Saddam Hussein. The conversation, switching easily between Arabic and English, was sprinkled with such phrases as "momentum must be maintained," "likely to be at war by February" and "the first 100 days."
This was a board meeting of Iraqi National Group, formed in the fall by exiled Iraqis with the goal of mapping out recommendations for the crucial early days of a transitional government in Baghdad.
"It's a given to the majority of Iraqis that there will be a regime change by war or otherwise, and whoever comes to power in Iraq will need this group," said Laith Kubba, who leads the Washington-based organization.
As the United States moves ever closer to a military attack against Hussein's government, the prospect of a post-Hussein Iraq has galvanized the estimated 5,000 Iraqis in the Washington area.
Families are anticipating seeing relatives for the first time in decades, and many professionals are envisioning how they will contribute their services in Iraq's reconstruction. Some are lending their support to ad hoc groups such as Kubba's, while others are participating in a similar effort launched by the State Department.
The Washington region's Iraqis -- part of a worldwide diaspora of some 4 million, about 300,000 of whom live in the United States -- include Kurds, Christians, and Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Some have been here since the 1970s; others came after the failed 1991 uprisings against Hussein in southern Iraq, and still others after an aborted, CIA-supported coup in 1996.
After a dozen years of false starts and deflated hopes, many of them believe that the United States is finally serious about ending Hussein's regime.
Many of the exiles, such as College Park physician Jamal Fadul, know the costs of war. Fadul helped organize the 1991 uprising. When the Iraqi army attacked his hospital, Fadul saw scenes that still bring him nightmares. Inside, more than 70 patients were dragged from their beds and shot. Outside, hospital beds that had been wheeled into the street stood abandoned under fire. Each one held a patient, all now dead.
Despite the experience, Fadul gives qualified support to U.S. military intervention to oust Hussein.
"Whoever is going to remove Saddam, we will work with them," said Fadul, 45, who seems an unlikely rebel with his gray hair and white medical jacket.
"What we are afraid of is what's going to happen afterwards," Fadul said. "There is a big question mark among the Iraqi people: Are the Americans against us or are the Americans against Saddam Hussein? We would like to see real support from the United States and the rest of the civilized world for democracy."
Ridha Al Tamimi, 35, also took part in the 1991 rebellion, working as a nurse. He came to the United States in 1997 after six years in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia and now delivers pastries to area Starbucks stores.
He is especially sensitive about civilian casualties because last November, his 29-year-old niece and her infant daughter were killed when two missiles hit their home. The missiles, Tamimi said, came from a U.S. or British plane patroling the no-fly zone in southern Iraq.
"I'm very happy if the U.S. government kills Saddam and his group, but don't kill the Iraqi people," said Tamimi, who lives in Northwest Washington.
Of more than a dozen Iraqis recently interviewed, none said they plan to permanently return to Iraq if Hussein is removed. "I have a mortgage now," said Ali Shaker, 45, who was a lawyer in Iraq before fleeing in 1991 and now works with Wackenhut security services. Besides, Shaker said, his daughter does not want to leave her fifth-grade class at Lake Ridge Elementary in Woodbridge.
But many exiles said they intend to visit relatives in Iraq and find ways to assist in its rebuilding.
"I'll be on the first U.S. tank!" joked Rend Rahim Francke, executive director of Iraq Foundation, a Washington nonprofit group formed to lobby for regime change in Baghdad.
Francke, who has been here since 1981, said she plans to establish part-time residence in Baghdad and set up a local office of the foundation "as soon as practically possible." Her objective, she said, is to help rebuild civil society.
As preparation, Francke found a book on the U.S. occupation of Japan after World War II in a secondhand bookshop. "I'm reading it now," she said, smiling.
The State Department's initiative, called the Future of Iraq Project, has brought exiled Iraqis together in recent months to discuss such issues as judicial reform, war crimes trials, public finance, agriculture and energy policy. Last week, about 30 Iraqi lawyers and judges in the justice group met for two days at a Dupont Circle hotel.
They examined a 600-page report of recommendations for reforming Iraq's legal system and issued an open letter to lawyers and judges inside Iraq, asking them to prepare themselves for the changes that are coming.
Exiled Iraqis' support for U.S. military intervention separates them from most other Arabs, who are almost universally against it, Francke noted. But it puts the exile community in sync with Iraqis at home, she said, noting that in the last month or so, Iraqis in the United States who phoned relatives at home often were pointedly asked, "When are you coming?" or "What are you waiting for?"
One night last week, several Iraqis gathered at Dar Ul Salaam Islamic Center in an Annandale strip mall to discuss their homeland's future. Colored balloons that said "Eid Mubarak" hung from the ceiling, remnants of recent celebrations for the Muslim holiday at the end of Ramadan.
Dhiya Al Saadawi, who left Iraq in 1992 and owns Al Hikma Bookstore in Falls Church, said he and others eagerly anticipate even greater celebrations when Hussein is removed.
But their hopes are mixed with apprehensions about damage to Iraq's infrastructure by U.S. bombs and the possibility that Hussein may unleash chemical or biological weapons in order to complicate an invasion.
Even more fears surround the transition period. Many Iraqis anticipate an outbreak of revenge killings but hope that a strong U.S. military presence and a well-planned amnesty program for all but the most senior Iraqi officials will keep such killings to a minimum.
Iraqis also are worried about the fractiousness of the exiled political groups that are itching to take control in a post-Hussein Iraq. And they fret about U.S. unwillingness to sustain the long-term effort needed to plant democracy. "We don't expect Jeffersonian democracy after Day One," Francke said. "But we want Iraq to move on that road firmly, and I don't know if the United States is going to stay on that course."
Most Iraqis expressed openness to a long-term U.S. military presence to support an Iraqi-led transition government until elections are held. But they cautioned that Iraqis' reaction to a lengthy occupation will depend on what it accomplishes.
"If America goes there, 1.2 billion Muslims will be watching," said Rubar S. Sandi of Potomac, an Iraqi-born businessman who was at Kubba's planning session last week. "If they provide safety and security and health and schools and food and clean water, I really believe the entire Muslim world will change their mind about America and its image."
For the moment, however, Iraqis are focused on Hussein's demise. Pediatrician Shawki Al Attar, 62, owner of the Georgetown rowhouse where Kubba's group meets, wanted to show a visitor why during a recent visit to his Silver Spring office.
Attar raised a motion picture screen hanging from the ceiling to reveal a painting by an Iraqi artist. It showed a sky of black and blue pressing down on a cluster of empty, darkened houses. In the foreground, a row of oval-shaped heads with no hair and no faces looked at the homes.
"Isn't it gloomy? I call it 'Baghdad in the Saddam Era,' " said Attar, peering through rimless eyeglasses. "I keep it covered because nobody likes it."
So how, Attar and an Iraqi friend were asked, do you imagine the same painting without him?
"Oh, we see sunshine! And flowers!" the friend said.
"And Fourth of July fireworks!" Attar added.