"We didn't know where we were," recounts the burly, soft-spoken Zakariya. "It was night. We thought it was a training maneuver."
A few months later, his brigade was dispatched to a trench directly across from American forces preparing to invade his country from Saudi Arabia. "We were really scared," he says. "The Iranian War was a joke compared to the bombing from the B-52s." When Desert Storm was unleashed, Zakariya joined tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers in throwing down their weapons and running for home.
"Those soldiers who stayed to fight were finished," Zakariya says, shuddering at the mention of fuel-air bombs, the weapons of mass destruction that the United States ignited over the Iraqi trenches.
Zakariya fled to Greece and eventually ended up in the Modesto area. He got a job with a neon-sign company and started hanging out at the Assyrian Cultural Center: a combination community center, television station, and bingo parlor located in the town of Ceres, which has a large population of Assyrians. The center also serves as headquarters for the Assyrian National Congress, an Iraqi opposition group that wants the United States to make war on Iraq. (Assyrians are an ethnic group of about 1.5 million people living in Iraq and abroad. They speak a common language, Assyrian, and practice several varieties of Catholicism. Zakariya identifies as an Assyrian.)
The cultural center's television station broadcasts anti-Hussein propaganda into Iraq, and a staffer is advising the U.S. government on how to reshape post-Hussein Iraqi society. Zakariya, 36, is ready to join the possible military onslaught of his country: "The invasion should be cobralike. The Americans should not hit bridges, electrical plants, and oil wells or cause unnecessary suffering." He wants the Americans to kill Saddam and install a U.S.-led military government, which, he says, "should be replaced after one year by an Iraqi leader schooled in American democracy.
"There are lots of people who fit that position; the Americans know who they are," he adds.
Indeed, a number of people have their eyes on the post-Saddam prize: lucrative contracts for the rebuilding of war- and sanctions-torn Iraq. One of them is sitting next to Zakariya, translating what the ex-warrior says from Assyrian into English: He's John Kanno, public relations director for both the cultural center and the Assyrian National Congress.
"I will go back to Iraq after the regime change to help put the electrical grid back together," says Kanno, 42, who was trained as an electrical engineer.
"General Electric will manufacture the turbines. Siemens and Westinghouse will be in on it. Twenty billion dollars will bring the electrical system back up to the pre-Gulf War level. It will be a gold mine."
Kanno, whose parents left Iraq in 1957, long before Hussein's Ba'ath Party came to power, is a member of a select group of Iraqis and people of Iraqi descent working with the U.S. State Department to lay detailed plans for any postwar occupation of Iraq. Several times in the past six months, he has flown to Washington, D.C., at government expense, to participate in what the State Department bills as the "Future of Iraq" project.
Future of Iraq meetings are attended by several hundred representatives from a score of Iraqi opposition groups here and abroad, State Department officials say. Among the subjects that the project's 15 working groups tackle are the formulation of an Iraqi constitution and the restabilization of the nation's banking system. They are also examining how to rebuild bombed-out water and electrical utilities, and restructure the oil and natural gas industry.
In addition to his participation on the committee in charge of utility infrastructure, Kanno is a member of the media working group, which helped the State Department refine its basic message on Iraq: the need for "regime change."
As for what comes after, according to Kanno: "The Iraqi people deserve democracy, but not as we know it. It would not work. It's hard to see free elections. You can't go from one extreme to another. For example, you need freedom to talk about politics, but you can't ask for women to be able to wear low-cut tops or bikinis -- that would not work."
The State Department believes a conquered Iraq should be allowed to "evolve towards democracy." In the dominant scenario, officials say, American occupation forces would set up two legislative-type bodies whose purpose would be to ratify a new constitution and hold elections for a new national government. The Council of Deputies would be composed of Iraqis currently living abroad, such as Kanno. The Council of Dignitaries and Notables would be composed of "community leaders, ethnic leaders and religious figures ... reflective of Iraq's 18 provinces and perhaps include seats for women."
While State Department planners focus on postwar governance, the question of what to do with Iraq's huge oil and gas fields is being studied at the White House -- apparently without input from Iraqi exiles. According to recent news reports, a committee headed by Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is planning for the United States to seize direct control of the oil fields. This objective, and an overall agenda for postwar Iraq, is promoted in a report released Jan. 14 by the Council on Foreign Relations and the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, Guiding Principles for U.S. Post-Conflict Policy in Iraq.
According to the report, "U.S./coalition military units will need to pivot quickly from combat to peacekeeping operations in order to prevent post-conflict Iraq from descending into anarchy." Iraqi institutions must be "purged" of Ba'ath Party leaders, while the reformed Iraqi army polices the populace to maintain order.
Saying it favors a "unified, federal Iraq," the CFR/Baker Institute report urges that U.S. or allied soldiers be deployed to Kurdish areas in northern parts of Iraq and Shi'a areas in the south to preserve "internal cohesion" -- an apparent call to use troops to squelch any separatist rebellions in those regions. The United States also is expected to funnel $100 billion in public and private investments -- secured by future Iraqi oil revenues -- into reconstructing the country.
Aware of the threatened invasion's unpopularity among many people in the Middle East and around the world, the report cautions that "short-term necessities will seem to contradict long-term goals. For example, the strong American presence that will be needed to establish and maintain law and order immediately after the conflict will appear at odds with the long-term goal of a sovereign Iraq. Similarly, protecting Iraq's oil fields from sabotage will likely confirm the worst fears that America is pursuing war in order to steal local resources." Attached to the report is a long addendum, "Oil and Iraq: Opportunities and Challenges," that details obstacles to privatizing the Iraqi energy sector.
Although U.S. officials consistently deny that oil is a major factor in the Bush administration's proposed war to "liberate" Iraq, the fate of the impoverished nation's oil fields is of paramount concern to American business. Petroleum Economist, a trade magazine, noted in an article last month about Iraq's oil infrastructure that, "If Saddam goes, the speed at which Iraq could rehabilitate its energy sector and proceed with essential exploration and production will, to a large extent, depend on the composition of a new government."
Participation in a new government by Iraqi opposition groups is needed to lend an aura of self-determination to the planned occupation. For however long America occupies Iraq it will need teams of public relations specialists to put the most democratic spin possible on military rule. And that's where people like Kanno come in.
"If we go to war," he says, "I will be a mouthpiece for Iraqis outside the country. I have a head start because I already have a weekly television talk show."
Since 1996, the Ceres-based Assyrians have been broadcasting television signals into the Middle East via AssyriaVision (KBSV-TV, Channel 23). They produce anti-Hussein political and cultural programs in two well-equipped television and radio studios just off the huge bingo room at the cultural center. The programs are transmitted into Iraq and Iran via satellite and Webcast. Kanno says the U.S. Air Force helps out by dropping fliers that tell Iraqis how to tune in to AssyriaVision. Kanno says his nonprofit cultural center does not receive U.S. government money for producing these programs; it finances them out of bingo profits.
Much more than Zakariya, who has seen the horrors of war up close, Kanno seems to relish his role as a favored player in the coming invasion. Smiling broadly, he pooh-poohs the fears of other Iraqi exiles about the U.S. Justice Department's plan to detain Iraqis living here who are deemed supporters of Hussein.
"The FBI should look at everyone with Middle Eastern ties," he says. "Look at how inefficient our government was before 9/11. Sometimes you have to give up your civil liberties in the name of safety."