Majority Retort

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APRIL 7, 2003

Majority Retort

SOUTHFIELD, MICHIGAN

Just hours before the first bombs fell on Baghdad, the conversation
taking place at a suburban Detroit restaurant was laced with
ambivalence about the looming conflict. "[Saddam Hussein] is evil,"
said Dave Nona, an engineer and land developer. "He has caused a
lot of hardship and misery to a good country and a good group of
people. But that country has suffered a lot, especially in the last
twelve years. ... Will it be a merciful war?" Explained Michael
Sarafa, president of a Michigan trade association, "My basic
problem is that we went from nine-eleven to liberating the people
of Iraq in eighteen months. How do you connect the dots?" Building
a democracy in Iraq would be nice, added Vanessa Denha, an official
with the local county government. But it might also be "wishful
thinking."By themselves, such comments are hardly remarkable. Even today, many
Americans continue to harbor questions about the campaign to oust
Saddam. But the group assembled at this restaurant were not just
Americans: They were Iraqi- Americans, a population widely believed
to be unambiguously supportive of the war. In late February, Deputy
Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz gave a rousing speech to several
hundred local Iraqis at a meeting hall just a few miles away,
provoking chants of "Saddam must go!" and, within days, enthusiastic
coverage from sympathetic media outlets. "Iraqi Americans
overwhelmingly agree" with Bush's war plans, The Weekly Standard
reported after the Wolfowitz speech. "IRAQI IMMIGRANTS SEEK SADDAM
OUSTER," read the headline on a Washington Times story. After
quoting one such eager Iraqi, the story went on to note, "His
sentiments are shared throughout the largest Iraqi community in the
United States, in southeast Michigan: Get Saddam out of power and
do it now."

The problem with these accounts isn't that they misinterpret the
sentiments of the crowd that attended Wolfowitz's speech. It's that
they erroneously assume those sentiments to be typical of all
American Iraqis. In fact, as reporters for local outlets such as
the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News have noted, opinion
about the war among Iraqi-Americans in Michigan largely breaks down
along ethnic lines. While Muslims overwhelmingly favor the assault
on Saddam, Christians, who make up the vast majority of Michigan's
Iraqis, have decidedly mixed feelings.

Although hard numbers on the American-Iraqi population are hard to
come by, it's widely believed that more than 150,000 people of
Iraqi descent live in the Detroit area and that, of those, most are
Chaldeans, a Catholic sect that traces its genetic lineage back to
the Sumerians, who ruled Mesopotamia beginning in 3500 B.C. In
addition to calling themselves Iraq's only indigenous
people--Chaldeans are like "the American Indians of Iraq," says
Martin Manna, a p.r. consultant--they also claim to have been
converted by Thomas the Apostle, which would make them among
history's very first Christians. But, while the Chaldeans may have
been the first people to thrive in the land straddling the Tigris
and Euphrates Rivers, they relinquished control of it long ago:
Although they remain Iraq's third- or fourth-largest ethnic group
depending on whether you count Shia and Sunni Muslims separately
with 800,000 Chaldeans at most still left in Iraq, they constitute
roughly 3 percent of the nation's total population.

That number is small in part because Chaldeans have been leaving
Iraq for places such as the United States since the turn of the
century, first to find economic opportunity and later to flee
political persecution. Indeed, it was the rise to power of the
Baath Party, and eventually of Saddam, that sent what was probably
the largest wave of Chaldeans to the United States from the 1960s
through the 1980s. Nowadays, most Chaldeans have at least one family
member or friend who has felt Saddam's wrath, even if they haven't
felt it themselves. "You know, if you had to pick who's worse
[Saddam], Hitler, or Stalin you'd have a hard time going
one-two-three," says one middle-aged Chaldean, who asked to remain
anonymous to protect the safety of relatives still within Iraq.
Recalling the experiences that led him to flee in the mid-'60s, he
described the public gallows that Baath Party officials set up in
the town square and how they used it to make examples of would-be
dissenters. "They took them one at a time to the noose, so that
that last one actually witnessed the first ones dying."

Still, Saddam never singled out Chaldeans for the kind of vicious
treatment he has visited upon Shia in the south or Kurds in the
north presumably because Chaldeans never had the numbers to
threaten him politically, as those other groups did. (Apparently,
Saddam has also spared Chaldeans some of the cruelties he has
visited upon Iraqi Assyrians, the Christian group from whom the
Chaldeans broke off centuries ago and who have been outspoken
critics of Saddam for years. According to Assyrian advocacy groups,
in the 1970s, Saddam destroyed literally hundreds of Assyrian
churches and villages as part of his effort to "Arabize" the
population.) As a matter of fact, many Chaldeans within Iraq have
remained loyal to Saddam, serving prominently in his regime (as in
the case of Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz). For years, Saddam
rewarded this service by interfering minimally in the Chaldeans'
right to practice their faith. "To be honest, as bad as Saddam is,
there are still Chaldean churches in Iraq," says Manna. "He hasn't
targeted the Christians so much."

Meanwhile, because the aftermath of the first Gulf war and the
ensuing trade restrictions left Chaldeans, like all Iraqis,
struggling to find food and medicine, their American counterparts
have been among the most outspoken critics of the U.N. sanctions
regime. And, as war approached in the last year, Chaldeans have
expressed grave concerns about the potential loss of civilian life.
"The images I have in my mind from 1991 haunt me all the time,"
Saad Marouf, chairman of the Chaldean Federation of America,
recently told a Southfield newspaper. "There was no food, no
medicine, no services. All the shops were closed. There were
children on the streets. ... Those are sights I don't ever want to
see again."

Sentiments like that are one reason Michigan's Shia Iraqis, many of
them veterans of the failed uprising after the first Gulf war, have
accused Chaldeans in the United States of being Saddam
sympathizers. "Most of them have been supporting Saddam Hussein for
a long time," says one exasperated Shia leader who took up arms
against Saddam in early 1991, then came to Dearborn after spending
several years in a refugee camp. But, even if that were once true
of some Michigan Chaldeans, it no longer seems to be the case for
most. In my interviews with about a dozen Chaldeans, I detected no
unwillingness to condemn Saddam. And, while that could just reflect
media savvy on the part of American Chaldeans, it could also
reflect more practical considerations primarily, the fact that
Chaldeans in Iraq have recently lost whatever special protection
the Baath regime once afforded them.

Indeed, as part of his campaign to make common cause with Islamic
fundamentalism, Saddam has been whipping up anti-Christian sentiment
in the last few years, closing Chaldean schools and publishing
articles in the state- owned press hailing Islam as a superior
religion to Christianity. Last August, Muslim extremists reportedly
stabbed and then beheaded a 70-year-old nun staying at a Baghdad
monastery prompting Chaldean Church officials within Iraq to warn
of a "rising tide of Muslim fanaticism" and of Saddam's "appeasement
of that movement."

But, if concern over violent Islamic fundamentalism has hardened the
Chaldeans' feelings toward Saddam, it has also intensified their
worries about what will happen if he falls. After all, with the
Shia making up around 60 percent of the Iraqi population, Chaldeans
fear that a poorly managed transition to democracy could easily
produce a fundamentalist regime that takes its cues from clerics in
neighboring countries, exposing the remaining Chaldeans to even
worse persecution than they have experienced under the relatively
secular Baath Party. "If the majority of the country are Shiites,
and they have allegiances with Iran or Syria, they're going to be
anti- Christian," says Sarafa. Chaldean relations with Iraq's other
key ethnic group, the Kurds, have been considerably better,
particularly since a 1998 agreement on religious minorities
guaranteed the rights of Chaldeans within the Kurdish- controlled
areas of northern Iraq. Still, a U.S. report on the status of
Chaldeans in that region noted "old antagonisms" between Kurds and
Christians plus incidents of anti-Christian acts, including
bombings, mob violence, and murders.

All of which helps explain why, a few years ago, a report from an
Italian- Catholic organization expressed what many Chaldeans
probably still think but would be unlikely to say in public: that
"for Christians living in the country, even [Saddam's] regime of
terror is seen as a lesser evil. Nothing better can be expected
either from the collapse of the regime, or from an Islamic
revolution. It is hard to imagine a post-Saddam phase." And, while
the whole point of U.S. policy is to create secular democracy in
Iraq, many Chaldeans don't seem to believe it can really happen.
"Why Bush is so sure he can democratize Iraq, I don't know,"
concludes Sarafa. "The only thing that has kept the peace over
there has been dictatorship."

Not every Chaldean shares that sentiment. Many older Chaldeans in
particular embrace the war unconditionally, if a bit ruefully. In
part, this reflects the fact that they, unlike their U.S.-born sons
and daughters, know the horrors of Saddam up close. ("My dad would
tell you that this is a great thing," Manna admitted, "because he
was forced out with five brothers in the middle of the night in
order to avoid being killed.") It also reflects the fact that the
older generation recalls the Iraq they knew as merchants: a
prosperous, well- educated society seemingly capable of sustaining
a democracy if only somebody would get one started. "Within the
Arab world, it's the only country that has the proper balance of
people and resources," says Nona. "Women are educated. It's open.
... If democracy is to take place anywhere in the Middle East, it
will be here." Adds Michael George, an executive at a locally based
grocery chain, "The people [of Iraq] aren't going to want a
dictator. They'll want to go back to when Iraq was the most
thoroughly advanced nation in the Middle East. " It's worth
remembering that comforting prediction, just as long as we remember
the more anxious ones as well.

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