Cheerleaders of War

Post-Saddam Iraq will be "a gold mine" of opportunity for U.S. and foreign contractors, says an exile leader

Daniel Zakariya was wounded four times fighting the enemies of Saddam Hussein. He was shot in the head, the chest, the foot, and the ass while serving as a foot soldier in the Iraqi army during the Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s. When Hussein ordered the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, he was one of the first Iraqi soldiers to cross the border between the two oil-producing nations.

"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."

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