Whenever American bombs start falling on Baghdad, I drop in on Andy Shallal, an Iraqi American who owns a restaurant near Dupont Circle. His love of America and his shame over America's war with Iraq sometimes become so intense that it seems that his heart is being torn in two.
"We were able to call Baghdad, and when my uncle picked up the phone, we could hear the sirens in the background," Shallal said Friday. "My mother" -- who lives in the Washington area -- "was saying to him, 'Why don't you leave? Just get in the car and get out.' My uncle told her, 'Because we don't want to be like the Palestinians, to leave with the promise of returning, never to make it back.' "
Shallal and I had last met at his restaurant in 1998, after President Bill Clinton ordered the bombing of Iraq. Back then, a cousin in Baghdad had just given birth to quadruplets. On Friday, he was talking about wanting to see the girls when, suddenly, the television set at his restaurant began showing images of Baghdad in flames. He stared momentarily, then began to weep.
The shock and awe aimed at Iraq had hit home.
Shallal was 11 when he came to the United States with his parents in 1966. He was a good student and went on to become a researcher specializing in medical immunology at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.
"I liked the work, but I wanted to be around people more," he said. Shallal opened his first restaurant 20 years ago. He now owns several, including his flagship, Mimi's American Bistro at 21st and P streets NW.
Such freedom and opportunity are priceless blessings, Shallal said, and his love for America has only deepened.
Shallal has about 100 relatives still living in Iraq, and his wife, Marjan, is from Iran. So he keeps a close eye on that part of the world. And he has come to see that America, despite its greatness, has serious flaws -- especially when it comes to dealing with Iraq.
He now believes, for instance, that the CIA helped to install Saddam Hussein's Baath Party in Iraq. And he discovered that some of the materials used by Saddam to manufacture biological and chemical weapons came from the United States and that when Saddam gassed and murdered Kurds, U.S. officials turned a blind eye because they wanted Iraq as an ally against Iran.
Even though the United States knew Saddam was a butcher, Shallal said, it continued to do business with him.
"The U.S. relationship with Iraq has always been based on oil and what's convenient at the moment for America," he said. "Now, all of a sudden, we're supposed to believe that the relationship is based on morality and a love for the Iraqi people?"
He glanced back at the television and saw more bombing, this time with a news bulletin scrolling across the bottom of the screen announcing that the Standard & Poor's index was on track for the best winning streak in nearly six years.
"It's creepy," Shallal remarked. "With every bomb that falls, the stock market goes higher and higher."
A few days earlier, the New York Times had published a photograph of Wall Street traders patting each other on the back. The headline read, "Stock Prices Rise as War in Iraq Appears Inevitable."
One analyst was quoted as saying: "What Wall Street really fears is uncertainty. What today's events seem to be pointing to is a reduction in uncertainty, even if the outcome of that is not necessarily a good thing."
Shallal said, "Wall Street has an impatient, survival-of-the-fittest mentality, and it echoes the realpolitik that we are going through."
On a wall of the restaurant were posters left over from a fundraiser for Code Pink: Women's Preemptive Strike for Peace, a group that staged a recent antiwar march in Washington. Shallal visits schools to teach about peace and holds a monthly "Peace Cafe" at the restaurant to discuss possible solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"I feel that the Iraqi people should be liberated, but not this way," he said. "The new emphasis on inspections, backed by America's military, was working. But as everybody now knows, this takeover had been in the works for years."
Theories abound as to the real reason for the attack. To Shallal and some other antiwar Iraqi Americans, it appears that Iraq will be the next place for Americans to build malls and McDonald's restaurants.
Check out who is getting some of the first multimillion-dollar contracts to rebuild the country, they say, alluding to Halliburton Co., which was once run by now-Vice President Cheney.
"Does anybody find that odd other than me?" Shallal asked. "How can anyone say that taking over a country with the world's second-largest oil reserves has nothing to do with oil?"
Shallal appreciates his life in the Washington suburbs. But the comfort of home does not make his pain and sadness over the war in Iraq go away. Moreover, he can sense the mixed feelings of others.
"What I've noticed in my neighborhood is the absence of flags," he said. "A lot of my neighbors are military people, and I don't see the enthusiasm and flag-waving that I did during the Gulf War, or like I did after 9/11. Why do you think that is?"
Maybe they are in shock as well.