Arab American leaders said yesterday that Iraq's occupation of Kuwait and the U.S. response have caused fear, resentment and confusion among many in their communities.

"We're in an awful position," said Michael Sarafa, an Iraqi American from East Lansing, Mich. "We want to be proud of our own country, but as Americans there's no way to defend the indefensible -- Iraq's occupation of Kuwait."

Arab Americans in the Washington, Detroit, Chicago and San Francisco areas said in interviews that they fear a backlash against them in the United States if any American citizens are killed or taken hostage in the Middle East.

"We're living in a very precarious situation here," said James J. Zogby, executive director of the Arab American Institute in Washington. "There's a lot of anti-Arab sentiment here. Anything that inflames that is potentially risky."

Some Arab Americans also are critical of U.S. actions. By sending U.S. forces to Saudi Arabia, President Bush is making it more difficult to achieve peace in the Middle East, they said.

"Outside interference will escalate, not solve, the problem," said Zena Neme, an Arab American community leader in Detroit, the U.S. city with the largest Arab American population. "It's like lighting a match."

Bush's policy could backfire on the United States, they said, by further damaging U.S. credibility among Arabs and even making a hero out of Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

"All this will do is make {Saddam} look like a national figure for standing up to the United States," said Abdeen Jabara of the Arab American Antidiscrimination Committee in Washington.

No one interviewed condoned Saddam's takeover of Kuwait, but almost everyone said Bush should not have countered by sending troops to Saudi Arabia.

"The United States is unnecessarily overblowing the situation," said Khalil Shalabi, a Chicago businessman active in that city's Arab American community. "This isn't the time to play the John Wayne drama in the Middle East."

Bush should have negotiated directly with Saddam before sending troops, they said.

"Why are we pushing ourselves into a possible war when we haven't exhausted all the remedies in diplomacy?" asked Fuad K. Taima, a Tysons Corner businessman and Iraqi native.

Many of the Arab Americans said a double standard is being applied in the Middle East. They said that when Israel occupied Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights, the United States did not send American troops and warplanes.

"The Iraqis are doing no differently than the Israelis have for 40 years," said Joseph Borrajo, of Dearborn, Mich., an Arab American activist.

"If Iraq is the 'naked aggressor' -- and we believe it is -- then what was Israel's invasion of the West Bank, Gaza and Golan Heights?" asked Amal Winter, an Arab American leader in Los Gatos, Calif.

U.S. credibility in the region is hurt because Arabs see that America will respond to aggression by an Arab nation but not by Israel, several people said.

"The danger is, while we're heartened by the international resolve to roll {the Kuwait occupation} back . . . there's the fear that our government sadly lacks the kind of consistency that would give it credibility to make a final resolution of the conflict," said the Arab American Institute's Zogby.

Drawing a parallel to the sympathy many blacks feel toward D.C. Mayor Marion Barry during his drug trial, Zogby said many Arabs here and in the Middle East will support Saddam because "we must support our brother" against a country that has applied inconsistent rules to Israeli and Arab actions.

"Anytime a problem stays within the family, it's okay," said Shalabi, of Chicago. "But when a superpower enters the picture, it changes the picture. You circle the wagons and defend your family."

"The invasion was wrong, but I don't feel like using the word 'condemn,' " said Saba L. Shami, an Arlington banker originally from Palestine. "That type of terminology is inflammatory and creates an atmosphere of betrayal. The Iraqis probably feel the rest of us are dumping on them."

Hyman Bookbinder, the former Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee, said the parallel between Iraq and Israel is inaccurate and irrelevant. "It's pathetic that in the midst of this crisis others would inject the issue of Arab-Israeli relations when what's needed is unity to stop this aggression."