EL CAJON, Calif. — As U.S. military forces in the Persian Gulf prepare for possible strikes on Iraq, Catholic Chaldeans from Iraq hope Saddam Hussein is overthrown but fear an attack on their homeland will devastate its infrastructure and victimize civilians still suffering from sanctions imposed after the 1991 Gulf War.

The U.S. Eastern Catholic Chaldeans number more than 200,000. Many fled Iraq when Saddam came to power in 1979; others emigrated after the 1991 Gulf War. Chaldeans comprise about 3% of Iraq's estimated 24 million people, most of whom are Muslims.

The U.S. Chaldeans — as well as some Latin-rite clergy and laity — differ on strategies to disarm Iraq, which is believed to have weapons of mass destruction.

Bishop Ibrahim Ibrahim of the Michigan-based Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle said he hopes Saddam will comply fully with the latest U.N. resolution, which demands a report of his weapons systems — including chemical, biological and nuclear programs — and unrestricted access to international inspectors. The resolution threatened "serious consequences" for noncompliance.

Bishop Ibrahim called for "dialogue and negotiations," to resolve the conflict. "The United States is the only superpower in the world. Its mission is to provide for world peace, not war," he said.

Sam Kosa of St. Michael Chaldean Catholic Church in El Cajon, Calif., said opposition parties in Iraq, including Assyrians, could topple Saddam if they had support from outside the country. But he believes the United States will attack Iraq regardless of Saddam's compliance with the U.N. resolution.

Deacon John Kalabat of St. Peter Chaldean Church in El Cajon said teams will be unable to inspect Iraq's movable and underground weapons. "Only God and the United States can remove Saddam … whose hobby is killing and making war," he declared.

During the Gulf War, Saddam placed aircraft in populated areas and weapons in churches and mosques, then blamed civilian deaths on U.S. bombing missions, the deacon explained. During Iraq's war with Iran in the 1980s, Saddam told his officers not to care about the number of casualties in their ranks, he added.

A U.S.-led attack on Iraq would "destroy the image of the United States in Arab nations," and lead to terrorist retaliation, Bishop Ibrahim said.

Sam Yono of Southfield, Mich., agreed. Attacking Iraq will incur the hatred of more than a billion Muslims worldwide and incite the wrath of terrorists who think the United States discriminates against Muslims, he said. Yono formerly chaired the Michigan-based Chaldean Federation of America.

Jane Shallal, an immigration attorney in West Bloomfield, Mich., believes if Iraq is attacked, it might fire missiles at Israel and "put us in the middle of a biological and nuclear war."

Garabad Sahakian of El Cajon fears another war with Iraq will be an "environmental disaster," causing disease and death to countless civilians.

Children and animals in Iraq have birth defects from low-grade radiation poisoning, and thousands of children suffer from illnesses related to depleted uranium in discarded shall casings and other munitions used during the Gulf War, according to a report submitted to the United Nations by the International Educational Development/Humanitarian Law Project.

Yono and Saad Marouf, who chairs the Chaldean Federation, recalled the destruction they saw when delivering food and medicine to churches and mosques after the Gulf War.

"Baghdad was paralyzed in 1991 … it was like living in the 11th century," Marouf said. He described homes lighted by candles, waste water running in the streets and contaminated water running from faucets only a few minutes a day.

Today most of the population still lives in poverty, Deacon Kalabat said, due to Saddam's $400 million military machine and his control of the nation's resources.

Bishops's Stance

The U.S. bishops have acknowledged that Saddam must stop suppressing his people and abandon efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction, but they oppose a preventive attack on Iraq.

In a Sept. 13 letter to President Bush, Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote that a just war must be based on moral principles. Using force to oust Saddam must have “serious prospects for success” and must not cause greater harm than the “evil to be eliminated. … An attack on Iraq could inflict “incalculable consequences” on civilians who have “suffered so much from war, repression and a debilitating embargo,” the bishop wrote.

However, some Catholics, including George Weigel, believe using force to remove Iraq's government can be justified. Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

“States cannot be permitted to obtain weapons of mass destruction and [have] the means to use them, directly or through terrorists,” he said. “If inspection leading to disarmament fails to disarm” Saddam's lawless regime, it would be “morally justifiable” to use armed forces to do so. … If and when that happens, I expect those who end Saddam's blood-drenched reign will be welcomed as liberators.”

After 9/11, Weigel stated in an interview for a Polish newspaper: “I don't think it makes much moral sense to argue that we have to wait until the nuclear-tipped missile or the biological or chemical weapon is launched until we can do something about it.”

Amid this controversy, U.S. Chaldeans continue to help their relatives in Iraq with finances to purchase rationed food and scarce supplies of medicine — shortages caused by economic sanctions.

Kosa and Yono blame the sanctions for the deaths of their relatives in Iraq. Kosa's uncle died of an ear and throat infection six years ago because he could not obtain the necessary antibiotics. Yono's cousin died from heart failure because he was denied surgery for blocked arteries.

More than 1.5 million Iraqis have died since the U.N. sanctions took effect, including at least 47,500 children under age 5, according to former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark.

Today, the Chaldeans dread having Iraq again turned into a battlefield. They are praying for peace during Masses and in their homes and wonder if the Iraqi regime will satisfy requirements of the latest U.N. resolution.

“The lives of the entire population [of Iraq] are at stake,” Kosa said. “War is a human-rights issue. I trust that God will work through people that are faithful to him” in their struggle for peace.

Joyce Carr writes from San Diego.