The worsening conflict in Iraq is far more than a distant news story to Imam Moustafa Al-Qazwini, a Rowland Heights religious leader, and Muhannad Eshaiker, an Irvine construction executive.
Al-Qazwini's father, an ayatollah in the holy city of Karbala, was shot in June in a botched assassination attempt. Eshaiker said his business partner was kidnapped in Baghdad and forced to pay a $50,000 ransom for his release; both men have left the country amid the uncontrolled violence.
"It is total anarchy," said Al-Qazwini, who heads the Islamic Educational Center of Orange County. "We need a miracle to solve the problems."
As U.S. officials intensify debate on whether to change course on Iraq, the two men and other Iraqi Americans -- who number about 50,000 in Southern California -- paint a portrait of mounting chaos, fear and hardship facing their families back home.
But, reflecting the nation's own disparate views, those interviewed were strongly divided on the best way forward for their native land.
Some favored a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops, saying insurgents are using their presence to rally their forces and justify their violence. Others call for a massive increase in troops to crush the insurgency and patrol the borders with Iran and Syria to keep out other troublemakers.
Many believe federalism can work in Iraq, keeping the country united with a degree of autonomy for the various regions controlled respectively by Kurds, Shiite Muslims and Sunnis.
But Tahsin Atrushi, president of the Kurdish Community Center in San Diego, said partitioning Iraq would be best because of what he sees as unbridgeable divides among the three groups. "I don't think these wounds can be healed," he said.
One point of agreement among all those interviewed: With the exception of the Kurdish north, Iraq is sliding into almost uncontrollable chaos and desperately needs a new approach.
Al-Qazwini said his relatives in Baghdad -- one an engineer and another a businessman -- have fallen into grim financial straits because the violence has virtually prevented them from going to work. They have reason to worry: The family patriarch, the Ayatollah Sayed Mortada Al-Qazwini, was shot in the thigh and hand while being driven home from his mosque.
Three months ago, Al-Qazwini's mother and brother barely missed being blown up by a suicide bomber in the holy city of Najaf. They safely passed the mosque gate just minutes before the bomber unleashed his blast but were deeply traumatized by the carnage, Al-Qazwini said.
He thinks U.S. troops should begin a phased withdrawal to remove the basis of the insurgents' claim of moral high ground: that they are only trying to oust Western occupiers of Muslim land. Though some fear that a withdrawal would prompt a bloodbath, he said, "I can't imagine a worse scenario than what we're experiencing now."
"The American occupation has been more of a burden," he said. "Talk of a pullout will give Iraqis some hope."
Al-Qazwini also said many Shiite Muslims such as him -- who constitute Iraq's majority -- think Sunni Muslims have too much influence on U.S. policy and on leaders in Jordan and Saudi Arabia and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad.
Eshaiker said he was shocked by the isolation he found on his return to Iraq in 2003 for the first time in 25 years after the U.S.-led "liberation," as he calls it.
An experienced engineer he hired didn't even know how to turn on a computer, much less use it, said Eshaiker, who left Iraq for England in 1977 to study urban planning and settled in Southern California in 1986.
Initially, he said, things improved. Rising salaries allowed many people to buy microwave ovens and other consumer luxuries for the first time. Then came the Internet and satellite TV, and soon he saw children in the streets imitating Western music.
But within a year, he said, petty crime had given way to what Eshaiker now sees as a highly professional and organized insurgency.
He said a recent incident in his Baghdad neighborhood illustrated the havoc that anarchy has wreaked on the Iraqi psyche.
According to Eshaiker, a man left his car in the street, saying he had to buy gas. When he didn't return within an hour, neighbors became alarmed that he had booby-trapped the car to explode. They called the local police, who said they were too afraid to show up. So the entire neighborhood evacuated itself, shutting down businesses and leaving homes.
Six hours later, the man returned with his gas, apologizing for his delay.
"Because of the lack of government, an honest guy who ran out of gas created havoc and paralyzed a neighborhood for an entire day," Eshaiker said. "So how do we expect the country to move forward?"
Eshaiker says U.S. troops should pull out of the cities, heavily reduce their visibility and sufficiently arm Iraqi forces to manage their own defense.