Dial Saddam for Murder

One bullet through the head, then a quick drive to Mexico. That was the plan. If it lacked artistry or cunning — qualities one might expect of an international political assassination — the man who set out to kill Sargon Dadesho didn't seem to care. He believed simplicity would do.

Dadesho was no head of state, after all, with bodyguards and armored limousines. He was just a pushy Assyrian with a little radio station in Modesto. Dadesho wouldn't even see it coming. A no-frills, economy hit — one .22-caliber bullet — and on to Mexico to pick up the second half of the $50,000 fee. Then it was home free, back to Iraq.

That's how Andri Khoshaba envisioned the murder. It was the way he explained it while trying to enlist the help of a friend, Rodes Youkhana. Khoshaba offered to split the $50,000 evenly if Youkhana helped with the killing.

But Youkhana had other loyalties — and a tape recorder.
“I am telling you, one shot to the head. I fuck his sister. He is not a lion to avoid death,” Khoshaba told Youkhana in one of the conversations recorded by his duplicitous confederate. The government of Iraq would pay for the murder, Khoshaba claimed, and provide haven in Iraq after Dadesho was executed.

Before the plan could be carried out, however, Youkhana snitched, and his secretly recorded tapes were turned over to the FBI. When a federal grand jury heard what was on them, it indicted Khoshaba on four counts including conspiracy, interstate travel in connection with a murder for hire, and acting as an agent for a foreign government. Khoshaba ultimately copped to one of the charges, and was sentenced to five years in federal prison.

Iraq's second-highest-ranking official at the United Nations, Hamed Ahmed al-Amery, was thrown out of the United States for his alleged role in the plot. Diplomatic immunity shielded him from prosecution.

Eight years and one war have passed since the assassination scheme was uncovered. Dadesho can still be found in Modesto, alive but wary. He remains, apparently, the only U.S. citizen that Saddam Hussein's government has attempted to kill on U.S. soil.

From a small radio and television complex just south of Modesto, Dadesho continues to agitate for his people — the Assyrians — a minority in northern Iraq that has suffered greatly under Hussein's rule. Dadesho's skill in pressing the Assyrian cause apparently drew Hussein's wrath, and the assassination plot was intended to quiet him. Obviously, that didn't happen.

Dadesho, in fact, is now anticipating a small measure of revenge.
After surviving the effort to kill him, Dadesho sued Iraq in U.S. District Court, accusing the Iraqi government of racketeering, civil rights violations, and infliction of emotional distress. Iraq made no effort to defend itself against the suit, and in 1995 a judge awarded Dadesho $1.5 million in damages.

Only after losing did Iraq hire a local law firm to contest the judgment at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In the 11th hour, Iraq is arguing that its government never actually sanctioned the hit on Dadesho. Iraq's lawyers — the San Francisco firm of Trump, Alioto, Trump & Prescott — are asking that the judgment be set aside.

As the legal jousting enters its final round, it seems almost certain that Dadesho will prevail. The government of Iraq will owe Dadesho $1.5 million, plus a half-million or so in interest that has accrued since the judgment was entered.

Collecting money from Hussein's government may seem a fool's errand, particularly for someone the Iraqis apparently wanted dead. But Dadesho is only 48 years old. He's a patient man.

He figures Hussein's rule must end someday. If U.S. bombs help speed that outcome, so be it. When Hussein falls or Iraq manages to re-enter the good graces of the international community, its bank accounts will be unfrozen and it will have to pay its debtors.

Dadesho will be waiting. He intends to collect his due — his blood money — for himself and for the Assyrians.

When they celebrate the beginning of their culture's New Year this March, the world's Assyrians will mark the advent of the year 6748. They are a very old people. In Mesopotamia, the Assyrian civilization flourished between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers thousands of years before Christ. Early Assyrian culture continues to yield rich veins of study for scholars of ancient language, writing, philosophy, law, and science.

Over the centuries, Assyrians have ruled their own land less often than they have been ruled by others. The great Assyrian dynasties began with King Sargon I in 2300 B.C. and ended about 1,800 years later. Before and after, Assyria has been ruled by various potentates, satraps, monarchs, and dictators, and the Assyrian people have blended and battled with Persians, Turks, Arabs, Mongols, and Asians.

Assyrians embraced Christianity from the outset — “We accepted Christianity from the Apostles themselves,” Dadesho says — but found themselves increasingly outnumbered as Islam took hold across most of the Middle East.

By about 1300 A.D., Assyrian civilization had dwindled, and the Assyrian language, one of the world's oldest tongues, was being largely usurped by Arabic. For the next 600 years, Assyrians endured what their scholars call the Dark Age, struggling to forestall the day when oppression and time's passage would wear their culture down to little more than historical detritus.

World War I actually offered hope to the Assyrians, who joined with the Allies to fight the Turks. The Assyrians believed they had a promise that, after the war, they would get their homeland back. That didn't happen. When the League of Nations carved up the spoils after the war, Assyria's native turf was lumped into northern Iraq, and the country remained under British supervision.

Since the creation of modern Iraq's borders, tens of thousands of Assyrians have fled the country to escape oppression by a succession of rulers, Saddam Hussein being merely the latest. An estimated 2 million Assyrians remain in northern Iraq, while another 2 million live elsewhere. About 300,000 of those live in the United States. [page]

Many Assyrians who fled Iraq migrated to California, finding climate and land similar to their native soil in the fertile valley around Modesto. They started arriving after World War I, their dreams of a new Assyrian homeland dashed. About 15,000 Assyrians now live in the area, one of the largest concentrations in the U.S.

Sargon Dadesho was a teen-ager who had just finished high school in Baghdad when his family left Iraq for California in 1965. He attended college here — Modesto Junior College, Stanislaus State University, Chico University, and UC Davis — and became a naturalized citizen.

It was in college, Dadesho says, that he began seriously reading Assyrian history, trying to gain some understanding of the country his family had left behind. “It gave me a complete picture of what had happened to our people,” he says. “It really hit me.” Assyrian struggles in modern Iraq, naturally, hit closest to home. “The government has been persecuting our people ever since the 1920s,” Dadesho says. “Since the 1920s, we have taken up arms against the central government.”

Launching movements was a popular thing to do in those Vietnam-era days, so Dadesho and five friends got together to form one of their own to fight for Assyrian rights and independence. They adopted the name Bet-Nahrain — the Land of Two Rivers, for the Tigris and Euphrates.

Bet-Nahrain started with little more than a one-hour radio show broadcast on a local station to Assyrians in and around Modesto. It was a humble effort, airing Middle Eastern news, Assyrian music, and notices of social events. But it caught on.

In 1974, a Catholic church came up for sale in Ceres, just south of Modesto. Dadesho approached the local diocese and offered $15,000 down and $500 a month for the building, which came with 5 acres. The church accepted, and Dadesho easily solicited the down payment on his radio show.

Since then, Bet-Nahrain has become the Assyrian community's cultural and political heartbeat. The church building has been expanded and given a new facade that resembles an Assyrian temple. Hundreds flock to the center for bingo games twice a week.

But the most important work, to Dadesho anyway, takes place in a few small rooms tucked away in the back of the building. These are the radio and television studios. With licenses for both an FM radio station and a television channel, Bet-Nahrain broadcasts a full programming schedule to California Assyrians.

The radio station is just one room, its walls covered with sound-dampening panels. The television station is small but well-equipped, with modern cameras and editing equipment. A stately set is decorated with flags and pictures of famous Assyrian generals and politicians. Some of the reprinted photographs appear old enough to be copies of daguerreotypes.

Dadesho, a slightly pudgy, middle-aged man with a neatly trimmed mustache and slow-rising sense of humor, presides over the handful of employees who staff the stations.

Though housed in humble surroundings, the stations have a reach far beyond central California. Bet-Nahrain feeds its programming to other Assyrian stations around the world, and has recently begun putting its programs on the Internet. Tapes have been smuggled into northern Iraq and broadcasts beamed across the border into the country.

Over the years, the influence of Bet-Nahrain's stations has grown steadily. Not only do they help sustain Assyrian music and traditions, but they serve as a platform to publicize and condemn Iraqi treatment of those still in the homeland.

Dadesho himself has emerged as an internationally recognized leader of the Assyrian cause. He is chairman of the Assyrian National Congress — an international body dedicated to obtaining civil and human rights for Assyrians. He's traveled extensively to plead the Assyrian case wherever seems fit, and authored several books on Assyria's place in modern geopolitics.

Dadesho is, in short, an agitator, and a very successful one. Whenever evidence surfaces that Iraq has used poison gas against Assyrians, or bulldozed more of their homes, or otherwise trampled their human rights, Dadesho makes it his business to broadcast the news to the world.

In early 1990, someone decided it was time for Dadesho to die.

Andri Esha Khoshaba, ironically, is also an Assyrian, although his loyalties lie more with the Iraqi government than his people. Like Sargon Dadesho, Khoshaba came to the United States from Baghdad as a youth, and became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He lived in Chicago and New York before moving to Modesto.

While living in New York, Khoshaba — described on his initial FBI arrest report as 5 feet 10 inches, 155 pounds with black hair and a mustache — established close ties with Iraq's U.N. mission; both he and his wife worked for the mission, he as a chauffeur for Iraqi diplomats and handyman around the official Iraqi residence.

Khoshaba was 46 and living in Modesto — working as a house painter — when, apparently, he was enlisted by the Iraqis in late 1989 to undertake a political killing.

The FBI first stumbled across the plot accidentally, court records and investigative reports show. Federal agents were investigating suspicions that the Iraqis were trying to purchase U.S.-made triggers for nuclear devices. As part of that probe, the FBI had tapped phones at Iraq's U.N. mission in New York City. Several Iraqis and their accomplices in the U.S. and England were later arrested for the plot.

As they listened in, FBI agents began picking up conversations about a planned assassination. But they had no idea who was to be killed, or where.

Rodes Youkhana provided those answers.
According to a statement Youkhana later gave the FBI, he was approached by Khoshaba on Feb. 12, 1990, in Modesto. “He told me he wished to have my assistance in a plan to commit murder in return for $50,000 to be paid by the government of Iraq,” Youkhana told investigators. [page]

Khoshaba's first target, Youkhana was told, was Dadesho. But Khoshaba also discussed a second killing, of a Kurdish leader named Jalel Al-Talbani who supposedly was due to visit the Bay Area.

Youkhana pretended to go along with the plot. But almost immediately after being taken into Khoshaba's confidence, Youkhana decided to tell Dadesho his life was in peril.

Youkhana contacted a cousin of Dadesho's, and the two men went to visit Dadesho at the Bet-Nahrain television studio. “One day I was here in the studio,” Dadesho recalls. “They came in and told me a guy by the name of Andri Khoshaba, which I knew, had recruited [Youkhana] to assassinate me.”

Dadesho not only knew Khoshaba's name, but had recently met his would-be killer. Khoshaba's older brother, Dadesho says, was a popular singer in Iraq, and Khoshaba apparently fancied himself a musical star as well. Just a few weeks before the plot was revealed, Khoshaba had come to the studio with some recordings of his own songs. Dadesho played them for several days over the radio station.

At first, Dadesho says, he didn't believe there was a plot. He outfitted Youkhana with a hidden tape recorder, and sent him back to capture Khoshaba on tape.

What Dadesho heard on the tapes erased any doubt in his mind. “We will kill Sargon Dadesho. Then we will make our way to Baghdad,” Khoshaba said in one of the conversations.

Dadesho took the recordings to the Ceres police, who contacted the FBI. The FBI realized this was the murder plot its agents had been hearing about on the New York wiretaps. Federal agents were assigned to protect Dadesho, and a tail was placed on Khoshaba.

On Feb. 16, Khoshaba was followed and watched as he flew from California to New York, where he visited the Iraqi U.N. mission. Khoshaba returned to Modesto the next day, and held more conversations with Youkhana, which were taped.

“They said that they are waiting for an approval from Baghdad to do this thing,” Khoshaba told Youkhana, apparently explaining why he did not return with the first $25,000 to pay for the hit. “I swear to the head of my children, [the money] will be sent here by telex.”

In the meantime, Khoshaba was also working out the mechanics of the killing. He and Youkhana went to a field outside Modesto to practice shooting. “We practiced with a .22-caliber rifle, which Khoshaba told me was to be used to kill Dadesho because it was not too noisy,” Youkhana later told investigators. “Because of the small caliber, however, Dadesho would have to be shot in the head.”

Khoshaba planned to wait for Dadesho outside the television studio and gun him down in the parking lot, Youkhana revealed. The two men had also discussed hiding a gun inside a camera so they could get inside the studio and kill Dadesho there.

Fearful that the murder was imminent, FBI agents arrested Khoshaba on Feb. 17. In an interview with federal agents, Khoshaba both denied the murder plot and attempted to pin the blame on Youkhana.

Confronted with the tapes, Khoshaba claimed he and Youkhana had merely been discussing the plot of a movie that dealt with murder. “Khoshaba denied planning or being ordered to kill anyone,” according to an FBI summary of the interview. “He stated that some people have put him in a bad position and he does not know why.”

When agents searched Khoshaba's Modesto apartment, they found a .32-caliber pistol. Among Khoshaba's various papers and records, they also found a telephone bill for long distance calls. It showed that Khoshaba had called the official residence of the Iraqi U.N. mission 73 times from Oct. 1 to Dec. 2, 1989, at all hours of the day and night.

To Dadesho's astonishment, the FBI then let Khoshaba go. Apparently, Dadesho says, U.S. Justice Department officials felt the plot had been stymied, and did not want to risk exposing the existence of the FBI's wiretaps at Iraq's U.N. mission.

Khoshaba returned to his apartment after being released. He told his wife he was going out for cigarettes, but he never came back. Instead, he flew to New York and visited the Iraqi mission, where he was given false identification papers. Khoshaba headed straight for the airport and boarded a plane out of the country.

Soon after, the U.S. expelled Hamed Ahmed al-Amery, the second-ranking Iraqi U.N. official, whom federal investigators believed was the man giving Khoshaba his marching orders. A federal grand jury in Sacramento indicted Khoshaba for the plot in April 1990, but by then Khoshaba was an international fugitive, reportedly living in Iraq. Inexplicably, Khoshaba tried to re-enter the U.S. in July 1991, and was arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Ultimately, Khoshaba pleaded guilty to one count of the indictment, and was sentenced to five years in prison. He served 4 1/2 years, and was released from a Chicago halfway house on Dec. 6, 1996. Dadesho says he's heard from friends that Khoshaba returned to Iraq and remains there.

“Five years in federal prison was really nothing for an Iraqi sent to assassinate a U.S. citizen,” Dadesho says. “He was an embarrassment to the Iraqi government. This was the first failed assassination attempt by the Iraqi secret police.”

Despite Khoshaba's arrest and imprisonment, Dadesho was not satisfied. The Iraqi government, he felt, had managed to avoid reckoning for its role in the murder plot. Dadesho wanted history to be clear on what had transpired. He turned to the courts.

After word of the foiled murder plot spread through the Assyrian community, a lot of people started avoiding Sargon Dadesho. Who knew if another assassin might be sent to finish the job? [page]

Membership in the Bet-Nahrain cultural center fell off. Bingo nights had always provided the bulk of the center's $3 million annual budget, but attendance started to dwindle.

Acquaintances stayed away from Dadesho. Women wouldn't go out on dates with him. People were afraid, frankly, that standing too close to Dadesho might get them killed, and that associating with him might jeopardize their relatives back in Iraq.

Alarms were installed at the broadcast studios, and Ceres police made a practice of driving by often to keep an eye on things. Dadesho carried a gun for a while, and started seeing a counselor who diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder. He was forced to cut back dramatically on his travels and lectures on Assyrian issues. To a large extent, Dadesho was being silenced, even though he had survived the murder plot.

So in 1992, after Khoshaba pleaded guilty and was shipped off to prison, Dadesho decided to go on the offensive. He filed a lawsuit naming Iraq, Khoshaba, and al-Amery in the plot to kill him and demanding millions of dollars in damages.

Pressing a lawsuit against Iraq proved tricky, especially since the U.S. had just finished bombing Baghdad and driving Hussein's armies out of Kuwait.

Just to serve the legal papers on Iraq's government, Dadesho's lawyers had to enlist the help of the U.S. State Department and the government of Poland. Since the United States did not have an embassy in Iraq after the Gulf War, the Polish Embassy in Baghdad set up a U.S. Interests section to help with U.S. matters in the country.

It took until February 1993 to formally serve the Iraqi government. Piotr Sweitach, a Polish consular officer, did the honors by forwarding a copy of the lawsuit with a polite cover letter couched in diplomatic niceties.

“The United States Interests Section of the Polish Embassy presents its compliments to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Iraq and has the honor to refer the Foreign Ministry to the lawsuit entitled Sargon Dadesho v. the Government of Iraq,” Sweitach's letter read in part.

Iraq decided not to respond to the suit, and never appeared in court in Fresno to challenge Dadesho's claims. Nonetheless, U.S. District Judge Robert Coyle refused to award Dadesho damages unless Dadesho showed the Iraqi government's complicity in the murder plot.

That took almost two years. Much of the time was consumed by efforts by Dadesho's lawyers to obtain the FBI's investigative reports and records on the case. Ultimately, the transcripts of Khoshaba's conversations with Youkhana, the surveillance reports on Khoshaba, and summaries of FBI interviews in the case were turned over and entered into the court file.

On Jan. 12, 1995, Coyle decided that Dadesho had proven enough of his case to be entitled to $1.5 million for infliction of emotional distress.

Throughout the course of the lawsuit, Iraq hadn't bothered to appear in court or file a single legal brief. But in late 1996, the Iraqi government suddenly decided to jump into the game.

When it needed a lawyer in the Bay Area, the Iraqi government turned to the San Francisco firm of Trump, Alioto, Trump & Prescott. The choice was mostly serendipity, says Daniel Trump. Back in the late 1970s, during the Iranian revolution, his law firm had a downtown office on the same floor as the Iraqi and Iranian consulates. Police often had to clear the floor while protesters besieged the Iranian office.

Standing outside on the sidewalk, waiting to get back into their offices, John Trump, the law firm's senior partner, and an Iraqi official struck up a friendship. That Iraqi official apparently remembered the firm when his government needed someone to handle the Dadesho case.

The case fell to Daniel Trump, who is now appealing the judgment. After the Gulf War, Trump says, the Iraqi economy was “down the toilet,” its diplomats had been thrown out of the U.S., and its assets were frozen. In filings with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Trump argues that Iraq should not be penalized for neglecting the case because financial constraints and the diplomatic situation made it impossible for the country to contest the lawsuit while it was pending.

“Since the filing of this action, Iraq has been an international pariah, has had no diplomatic relations with the United States, has had all of its United States-sited assets frozen, and has been restricted by the United Nations from engaging in international commerce,” Trump argues in a brief to the appeals court.

Iraq isn't trying to duck accountability for the lawsuit, Trump claims, but wants a chance to clear its name. “Iraq merely seeks the opportunity to appear and defend itself on the merits against extraordinary allegations of murder for hire and international terrorism,” Trump contends.

Should the case be sent back for trial, Trump says in an interview, Iraq will argue that none of its officials sanctioned Khoshaba's plan to kill Dadesho. None of the clandestine tapes captured Iraqi officials approving the plot, Trump says, and Khoshaba “was not acting at the direction of any official of the Iraqi government.”

Instead, Trump suggests, Khoshaba may have been a “lone gunman” who was attempting to impress the Iraqi government by “trying to prove up some bizarre notion of his value.”

But whether Trump will win the argument is in doubt.
Iraq's appeal may well get thrown out on a technicality: The rules require that a notice of appeal normally be filed within 30 days of a judgment. Trump took 60 days, which he argues is allowable under the rules for sovereign nations. But federal appeals courts are sticklers for details, and generally when lawyers miss a filing deadline, the case gets booted out without so much as a blink.

Trump has filed another brief asking the appeals court to accept the late filing, but unless the appeals judges feel kindly toward Iraq and decide to cut it a rare degree of slack, the appeal is probably dead. [page]

More than eight years after learning that he was a target for assassination, Dadesho may soon have his vindication.

Settling its debt with a Modesto troublemaker is undoubtedly a minor concern for a country grappling with a possible U.S. military strike, United Nations sanctions, and the loathing of much of the world.

But to Dadesho, his lawsuit's message is more important than the money.
In November 1992, Sargon Dadesho finally returned to Iraq for the first time since he was a teen-ager. After the Gulf War, northern Iraq was largely under the control of the United Nations, which stepped in to protect the Kurds and Assyrians from Hussein's repression.

The Assyrian National Congress took the opportunity to schedule a meeting in northern Iraq. Dadesho was the chairman. He had to go, and he wanted to go.

“I wasn't scared,” he says. “I loved the fact that I was going back to my homeland.”

With the knowledge of the U.S. State Department, Dadesho says, he traveled to Turkey and slipped across the border into Iraq. He spent two weeks there, staying through Christmas.

He visited with Assyrian militia groups and posed for pictures holding an automatic rifle. His portrait was painted and displayed by Assyrian loyalists. Just for surviving an Iraqi assassination attempt, Dadesho was a hero.

If silencing Dadesho had been the Iraqi government's plan, clearly, it's backfired.

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