Assyrians Yearn for
Regime Change in Iraq
Hermiz Shahen, Secretary
Assyrian Universal Alliance-Australia Chapter
For years, Assyrians have appealed to governments
and to international human rights organizations through direct talks with government leaders; through attendance at many conferences of the United Nations on working groups on minorities and
indigenous population and through organized demonstrations and protests in seeking and gaining support for our quest to be able to continue to exist in our homeland. Our goal is to reunite our shattered
and separated families, and what we seek in our plea is nothing more than what the world accords to other harried minority groups, who likewise have
experienced invidious treatment involving spiritual, social, economic and human rights violations.
Along with the other opposition groups who have rallied to oppose Saddam's regime, the Assyrians are eager for the removal of this brutal and bloody regime. Obviously, a diplomatic solution for the disarming of
Saddam and the dismantling of his weapons of mass destruction would have been preferable, as it would have spared many civilian lives. On
balance, Iraqis of many nationalities and religions, including Assyrians, are prepared to pay the price of war casualties, provided it is the way to peace and freedom for all Iraqi citizens.
The Assyrian Homeland within Iraq
Imagine Iraq as a mosaic comprising a multitude of nationalities and religions. Some of the better known cultures are the Arabs, the Kurds, the
Assyrians, the Turkomen, the Yazidis, the Sabeans and the Mandeans. Religions include Islam (both the Shi'a and the Sunni variety) and various
Christian faiths (Chaldean Catholics, Church of the East, Syrian Orthodox, and Protestants).
The Assyrians (who are also known as Chaldeans and Syriacs) are the indigenous people of Mesopotamia, where their written history goes back 7000 years. Over these millennia, they have
developed cherished traditions, and their language remains Aramaic Syriac, which is an extension of Akkadian Babylonian.
To this very ancient people of Mesopotamia, the northern Iraqi provinces of Nineveh (Mosul and surrounding cities), Arbil and Dohuk are considered
their heartland. Due to political hardship, the Assyrian population in Iraq has declined to 1 ½ million people, and most of them now live in the capital city of Baghdad and around their historical homeland.
Early in the 20th century, Assyrians in Iraq petitioned for their national rights, emphasizing constitutional recognition of their identity, respect for their
culture, which is distinct from other cultures in Iraq, and for full and equal citizenship rights. Their plea availed nothing; their national identity continued
to be denied, while the government carried on its oppression and massacres. The worst of the latter was the tragedy of Simel in August 1933,
resulting in the slaughter of more than 3000 Assyrian civilians whose only sin was to demand their basic human rights in their own country.
The tragedy of Simel was followed by a systematic destruction of Assyrian towns and villages in the ensuing years. In further exacerbation, the Iraqi
government forcibly expelled the national and religious leadership of the Assyrians, and in effect created large pools of Assyrian refugees who fled
to Syria and other countries in the region. This painful experience — marked by immigration and scatter — marked a new low of despair and isolation in
Assyrian history. This was characterized by the massive loss of our traditional lands, and the severe depopulation, which has left us politically
weak and vulnerable to the merciless inhumanities of the despot Saddam Hussein and his corrupt BA'ATH Regime.
Assyrians and Saddam's BA'ATH Regime
After the tragedy of Simel, successive ruling governments in Iraq continued their inhuman policies against the Assyrian people, and without question,
the ruling Ba'ath party of Saddam committed the worst atrocities. Those who protest the current coalition efforts to liberate Iraq are naïve innocents
unaware of what suffering, such as that of the Assyrian people at the hand of Saddam, really means in human terms. When they compare President
Bush to Saddam Hussein, their ignorance of history is sickening to the moral mind, if one considers the last 35 years in Iraq.
Over the past 35 years, over one million of our
people have been forced to flee their homeland and seek refuge in the West. Those who remained in Iraq faced assassinations, kidnappings, land expropriations and forced conversions to Islam.
There has also been a state of linguistic-cultural pressure through a ban on teaching the Assyrian Language, restrictions on the practice of religion, sanctions against the use of Assyrian names for newborn babies.
Also during the past 35 years, Saddam has destroyed over 300 towns and villages, which had been home to our people for thousands of years, to say
nothing of the historical monasteries. These properties were subsequently expropriated by the Kurdish paramilitary organizations that ostensibly took
over the government in the "Safe Haven" zone of north Iraq.
A master of the twisted word, Saddam used the 1977 census to force Assyrians to either declare either Arabic or Kurdish nationality. Those who lived in areas whose majority were Arabs were registered as Arabs,
whereas those who lived in areas whose majority were Kurds were registered as Kurds. Those who insisted on declaring themselves Assyrians were interrogated; their declaration was deleted from the lists
and changed to Arabic or Kurdish. Thus, the Assyrian who lived in the middle and south was registered as Arabs and the one who lived in the
north was registered as Kurd. The same scheme was repeated in the census of 1987.
Sadly, though, Saddam's successes within Iraq to smother the legitimate identity of an ancient people weren't enough. It is an odd twist of fate that
United Nations delegates kept asking "where is the smoking gun." Perhaps, they should have asked, "where is the smoking candy?" Had they done so,
their question would have led them to the first international use of WMD for terror by a sovereign nation — in Australia, no less!
Assyrians Suffered the First
WMD Attack Outside of Iraq
Assyrians who have fled the persecutions of Iraq have been privileged to enjoy the freedom and democracy of Western society. However, this did
not stop the Iraqi regime from pursuing them, particularly in Australia and the U.S.A. Assyrians in Australia had the dubious honor of experiencing the first chemical and
biological attack by Saddam Hussein's agents.
In November 1978, the Assyrian delegation to the Eleventh World Congress of the Assyrian Universal Alliance convened in Sydney. The five-member delegation attending from Iraq had
brought along poisoned sweets, packaged in Iraq, which they offered to the other delegates.
The poisoning was identified as being mustard gas (a form of chemical weapon also used by Iraq in its war with Iran and Kuwait). The Australian Health Authorities and the Hospital
discovered that this form of poisoning causes necrosis or death of the body tissues. At least nine people suffered from this poisoning and the perpetrators escaped back to Iraq before facing charges.
Regrettably for the Assyrians, no international action was taken at that time to publicize Iraq's use of such destructive weapons. This may have been
due to the lack of international focus at the time on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, or perhaps the Assyrians were not considered sufficiently important as human beings and as citizens of this world.
With all the protests against President Bush and the courage of brave coalition servicemen and women, one must understand the true consequence of what will happen to a just people if Iraq remains under the
control of the present BA'ATH and Kurdishregimes.
Threats Facing Assyrians in Their Homeland
Assyrians presently living in their homeland are either ignored or misidentified as "Christian Arabs," "Christian Kurds," or by various other
religious denominations. This has led to the inflation of numbers of other Iraqi citizens such as the Kurds, and to the serious undercounting of Assyrians inhabiting the region. Such legerdemain fosters
misunderstanding and ignorance regarding the legitimacy of our claims to our national homeland.
For their part, Assyrians living in Northern Iraq are experiencing a systematic ethnic cleansing campaign by the Kurdish leaders who have
assumed leadership of the region following the Gulf War. The Kurds in the North are using similar tactics to those of Saddam Hussein. They are
confiscating the Assyrian lands; they are forcing emigration and terrorizing Assyrian civilians, including their political leaders.
Despite such atrocities, Assyrians in the North have made some cultural advances in the "safe heaven" environment provided by the Western coalition in the three provinces of Arbil, Suleimanieh and Dohuk. For
example, we have newly-established clubs, cultural and social centers, political party activities, the publication of magazines and newspapers in
Syriac and other languages, the establishment of at least 37 elementary and secondary schools in the region (servicing more than 5000 male and female
students), the study of the native Syriac language and the production of some 100 books in the Syriac language (running between 2000 to 3000 copies per edition), at a cost of millions of Iraqi Dinars.
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However, Assyrian concerns persist, in light of a proven Kurdish track record of land occupation and expropriation. Almost all Assyrian lands abandoned under duress during the 1960's and 1970's, and following
Saddam's Anfal campaign, remain the legal property of Assyrians, but have been illegally settled by Bahaman Kurdish squatters.
Vulnerable Assyrian villagers seeking a right of return to their home have been prevented by Kurdish security agents at various checkpoints dividing
the nation. Kurdish authorities have gone further, issuing a law that will make them potentially able to illegally transfer expropriated Assyrian lands to
Kurdish squatters. The decree has the potential of allowing the Kurdish occupation forces de facto confiscation of Assyrian lands, enabling them to
sell these to their Kurdish supporters at a fraction of their real market value. Assyrians are rightly concerned about the potential that this law will lead to
discrimination of Assyrian existence in northern provinces. (For precedent, one needs only to look back in history to the Nazi occupation of Krakow, Poland.)
Liberation Is Our Greatest Hope
Saddam has predictably challenged the international community, and he is facing the consequences. As Assyrians, we hope that the end of the current
regime will signal an end to the bloodshed and agonizing pain currently darkening the lives of those oppressed. In particular, Assyrians fervently
hope for a democratic, pluralist future for Iraq, which will be organized federally to encompass all groups. We hope the future Iraq will be secular,
putting an end to discrimination against people, whether based on religion, race or creed.
Specifically, Assyrians demand an autonomous region within federal Iraq, in Nineveh (Mosul) province, that will be demarcated between the Kurds to the East and Arabs to the South. There,
Assyrians have maintained a continued presence, albeit much diminished, in the form of towns, villages, ancient sites and monasteries. Assyrians contend that it is in the interest of the region and of
the world for the continuous presence of Assyrians in that area.
Assyrian communities worldwide have and will continue to express their sincere gratitude for the tireless efforts in the defense of freedom by the
United States of America, Australia, Britain and other Allied countries of the willing, to hold and defend the values of democracy and the universal cause
of human rights. It is indeed a source of pride for all Assyrians who are also encouraged by the knowledge that the coalition forces will persevere in this
position through the liberation of Iraq. God bless the leaders of the coalition countries who have risen above the self-serving rancor of Saddam's
supporters abroad to vigorously pursue democratization of Iraq and may he give them the strength to stay the course.