Iraqi Parliament member visits the Central Valley Kanna speaks about life in the war zone

Staff Reporter

Yonadam Kanna, a member of the Iraqi Parliament, took time out from the legislative calendar of the Iraq National Assembly to visit Stanislaus County this week. An Assyrian Christian from northern Iraq, Kanna serves as the Secretary General of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, also known as Zowaa.

The ADM and Kanna first gained American recognition as an Iraqi opposition movement on Dec. 9, 2002, while Sadaam Hussein was still in power. As a result of his opposition, Kanna had been a target of the Hussein Ba’ath regime for many years.

Kanna played an important role in the anti-Sadaam movement, taking part in a September 2002 meeting of Iraqi opposition leaders in New York. Later that year, Kanna addressed a similar London conference of Iraqi opposition leaders.

In February 2003, Kanna sat before U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad at a conference in northern Iraq just months before the American-led war in Iraq began.

After the fall of Sadaam, Kanna served as a member of the Iraqi Governing Council from 2003-2004 before earning a seat in Iraq’s first elected government in 2005.

On May 6, 2006, an unsuccessful attempt was made against Kanna’s life as his convoy came under attack by improvised explosive device as it traveled through Baghdad.

During his visit to Stanislaus County, where he is being hosted by the Stanislaus County ADM, Kanna has met with President Hamid Shirvani of California State University, Stanislaus to discuss education, the Turlock City Council, and U.S. Representative George Radanovich’s office. A banquet will be held tonight in his honor.

Kanna also took time from his busy schedule to sit down with the Turlock Journal to give an insider’s view at life and government in Iraq.

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Alex Cantatore: It’s a pleasure to speak with you, I’m very honored to have this opportunity. I wanted to learn a little more about why you’re here in Stanislaus County.

Yonadam Kanna: First of all this stop here is one location of many, many, many locations. First was Arizona, Phoenix, and then San Jose, and then here, then LA, then back Michigan, Detroit, Chicago.

(I am) meeting the Iraqi community talking about the political process in Iraq and what are our needs here and how things are going. (I am telling them) not to trust the negative media about Iraq, here or there. Because media unfortunately, there in the middle east with the media of anti-freedom or democracy, are just exaggerating negative points, and here, unfortunately, the things back home in Iraq are very badly invested in the election campaign, one against the second. Either here or in Iraq as well, because we have also provincial council elections.

So we are talking to people to tell them what’s the truth and to call them to go on with the process of rehabilitation, and the reconciliation, and the reconstruction, and the helping us and taking care of our refugees to be back home. So this is, as I said, one station out of a long line of stations, plus we have another station in Denver, Colorado. We will join our friends in America talking about in and out America policies, at the (Democratic National Convention.)

AC: You said that you shouldn’t believe the negative propaganda. Are things getting better in Iraq? I’ve never been to Iraq; I just see what the average American sees. How is it actually there?

YK: Well, first of all, we lost maybe three to four years in the beginning, but the real transition in Iraq started after the new strategy policy of President Bush increasing the number of forces there and building local abilities, local army and local police of Iraq. So now I can say that I don’t say the job is done, but it is in much, much better condition now.

We have enough forces, and cooperation with the (Multi National Forces) they are doing their job, and I can say the violence is almost contained in most Iraqi areas except some in Diala, and some in Mosul, and some in some neighborhoods of Kirkuk. So in general it’s going on very positively in the right way, so again I will say we are on the right way in peace and reconciliation.

On the process of reconstruction we have very, very much enough funds and currency and oil sales, so much that have more than 30 billion dollars plus now and at the same time preparing ourselves for local elections of provinces and councils. So this is the way, but still we are not that much and still we need more to go on with the process, political process and reconstruction and reconciliation and constitutional amendments, so we are on the right way now.

AC: You said part of the reason you were here to explain what you needed from America. What could America still do for Iraq, what kind of role do you see America playing in Iraq in the years to come?

YK: We need America and other friend countries to go on with us in reconciliation process, political process, the constitutional amendments, and the legislations to be the right direction, and we need advice.

We have joint interests with America and many more countries, European, Japanese, because of technology, economy, and energy, for long term. Not for tactical but for long term.

So we voted for a friendship treaty with the Italians, for example. We have the first reading of friendship treaty with Germans, so also with Americans we need same thing to be done.

We have technical issues, we have cultural, we have political, we have security issues, so this treaty is specially to be signed or to be accepted by parliament and again we expect from America much more than the others, especially in the region that we maintain this democracy process in Iraq and make it succeed and go forward and develop our country as well.

So this is the need for America, but again I will say America has to support and help us to rehabilitate our local human resources either in army or police or in expertise and technical side.

We have enough resources, human or financial resources. We need advice, we need training the right way, because our country changed from a social, very central system, to some free market system and diversity in Iraq, a free economy system so in this transition we need expertise, we need help and support.

AC: I know that it’s certainly been harder for some areas of the Iraqi populace to make the transition than others; we see on the news all the time about the discontents and how there are splinter groups still against the government, I understand there have been attempts on your life in the past, but since the invasion, have things have gotten better in terms of security?

YK: First of all, the problem was the mistrust between the communities, or let’s say between the mentalities. The former regime mentality, the very racist Iraq and very centralist or socialist.

The new regime of Iraq is diversity and federal system and freedom and democracy, and these such principles are very far away from the others, so it was a kind of struggle between two different cultures. So that’s one.

Second, there was a de-Baathification commission, I was one of the members of this commission, and sometimes this commission has been politicized not that much fair work so this created, some hatred. Lots of former regime institutions were dissolved and people have nothing to do with Sadaam and still they are out of a job. So there was that resistance.

But more than that, the problem was the international terrorism and extremism from our neighboring country. Either religious extremism plus the racism from the west part of country, so again I will say, you spoke about the attempts, that’s right, but I can say now we are on the right way for reconciliation.

AC: I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about what it’s like to be a Christian in Iraq? I know there are a lot of different religions, and Christianity definitely isn’t the major religion in Iraq. Is it difficult? Is it easier now than it was before?

YK: In the beginning, in 2003, 2004, all the borders were left open so a lot of groups, extremists and terrorists, came inside Iraq. Maybe in the beginning there was some pressure in general on everybody from the gangs, terrorist explosions and lack of public services.

But after 2006, during 2006 and 2007, after the terrorist Al-Qaeda were kicked out of Al Ramadi, western provinces, they came to Baghdad, the southern part of Baghdad and western part of Baghdad, and then again in Mosul city itself, Nineveh province.

So that time, yes, it was very difficult to deal, or to live in such kind of terrorism extremism. Which was targeting our entity not only as Christians – even as Shia for example, Muslim Shia.

So that was very difficult time which caused that some hundred thousand to flee from our community. Right now we have almost 300,000 people living out of their homes, either in Syria or Jordan or Northern Iraq.

But in general speaking now is much, much better. And our community start going back to those regions which left before, three years, especially southwest Baghdad. Mosul still needs much more to deal with order and to bring security, but Baghdad in general is not bad. I can say it’s very, very much improved and you cannot compare from that time.

For almost one year (there have been no kidnappings.)

One of the generals was my guest for almost two weeks. He said, before one year exactly, in July 29, 2007, there were 50 attacks in one day. But 29 July this year there was only one attack.

I said, now we became like Chicago. He said, no, Chicago has much more than one attack.

So you can’t compare now, before one year and after one year. So still there’s a lot to be done, especially reconciliation and balance among the community, and to stop the corruption in the government.

This is the worst thing now. Corruption in the government and lack of expertise because many, many people fled.

Either they fled from the gangs and gangsters and kidnappers, or some of us pushed them out of government because of the sharing policy between the powerful parties. They didn’t stop at ministerial level, they come down to the sweepers so this was very bad and the independent people were without shares.

AC: Before there was no representation for minority groups in the Iraqi government, such as Assyrians, and now you are the Secretary General of the Assyrian Democratic Movement. As I understand it, you are the only Assyrian representative in the government. How does that make you feel to be able to represent Assyrians and have a voice now for your people?

YK: Well, our community, as the Assyrian-Chaldean community of Iraq, are very happy that first of all our rights are guaranteed in the constitution; either religious, or cultural, or linguistic rights, or ethical, political rights in the many articles of the constitution.

Plus the dual citizenship right in Article 18 is guaranteed for those who fled the country since 1933, not now, since 1933 – the Simele Genocide ’till now. Everybody can have his citizenship again, and can take back his property. That’s one side.

From political side, although I am one, I speak very loudly there about my people’s rights and all Iraqi rights sometimes. All Iraqis are happy at least politically, in the constitution and legislative issues, everything is guaranteed there. But still we suffer from the remains of viruside mentality from former regime – either racism or extremism, religious extremism, but we are on the right way.

Legislation and others are guaranteeing my rights, in this community and as an Iraqi as well.

AC: Where do you see Iraq in 20 years? What will Iraq look like?

YK: You cannot say 100 percent, because there are many outside external invisible unknown negative factors influencing in the process in Iraq. Same as affected us in last five years. This was not in the plans of America or of us, and that’s why we got in this bad situation.

But still I am very optimistic that the righting will come – freedom and democracy and prosperity for Iraqi people. We appreciate all sacrifices of our friends, especially Americans and other MNF members (…)

And this is the beginning as I say, the transition just started after the strategy plans of President Bush, so now we are, I can say, much, much better condition than before two years.

Yes, there were some sectarian problems, and there is still some ethic or racist conflicts, but I hope that very soon we can solve these problems, because our country is very rich and we have very enough soil and fertilizer and good enough water, enough oil and good sales.

So at the time people are suffering somewhere from the prices of oil, we have so much oil. I can say we are expecting a very prosperous future of Iraq, not 20 years, maybe less than 20 years.

AC: So, I have to ask, I’m curious, how much does a gallon of gas cost in Iraq?

YK: It’s almost the same cost of water.

AC: Really?

YK: Every single barrel costs us almost half dollar, 50 cents. Every barrel which is sold (at $130 dollar) cost us to produce it, only 50 cents, not dollars.

AC: That’s very impressive, I think I might need to move to Iraq.

YK: Not a gallon, but a barrel!

AC: So you’ve got all these natural resources, it sounds like things are going in the right direction. What can Americans here do to support the efforts in Iraq if they’re not members of the military or in the government? What should the average person do to help things in Iraq?

YK: First of all, again I will say that maybe today is different from six months later, because we are living in the campaign now. So there is very much tension, using this campaign issue about Iraq. Some say we have to withdrawal right away, others say 16 months, others say, no, 100 years.

I hoped to have not so much invested in campaign election, because you have to not destroy the US Army morale there because they have done a great job. You have to appreciate that first and then push us and support us in rehabilitating this country.

Any step taken here, any for example decision or very badly use in the campaign reflects negatively there because you are encouraging others. Sometimes we hear some slogans here that look like the slogans of the extremists in the country. The extremists in the country say okay, go out, and leave our country.

We don’t want America to leave the country as loser occupiers, but when they leave, leave as winner friends. So this is a short equation.

So politicians here in America have to think about that. Yes it is normal to compete between each other, but there are some red lights. It is, in general, that American interests are Iraqi interests as well, so those red lines are not to be crossed, with all respect to both parties and both candidates, we appreciate that.

But again I will say the campaigns should not cross those red lines that encourage the bad extremist in Iraq or neighboring countries. Then they are managing their plans referring to the slogans here again.

AC: In Iraq, are the citizens very interested in the election here?

YK: For sure yes. Iraqi thinks that America, any party came to power, to keep on committed to this process in Iraq, not just to leave and just to bring back the vacuum and the chaos again in Iraq, but to go on with the process to rebuild to rehabilitate and to keep friendship.

I don’t say that America should stay there as a guard for us, no. We have our own resources, but to be very well trained and equipped, then they can take the responsibilities of security and other things.

American people have the right to decide who will be on power, but the part which is in relation with us is that we go on with this friendship as friends and not to leave us right away to leave behind the vacuum and the chaos again.

So this part of election year is very influencing there and in Iraq, this issue of (Status of Forces in Iraq,) and the timetable of when they will withdraw or not is very badly used among the parties involved.

(Among Iraqi political parties, there is a competition to see,) who is more patriotic, and that is too bad. We have to be more realistic and think about to believe that we were friends and we have to stay friends.

AC: Why should America stay in Iraq? How does it benefit America to stay active in Iraq?

YK: Well first of all, our country there, not country but our region there, has more than 50 percent of the energy in the world It is one of the major points in the economy of the world. Energy. When there is no energy, there is no life.

Sometimes, you have so much extremist regimes and so much fanatic regimes that are affecting and influencing very negatively on all the development and all the life of people all over the world. Secondly, the democracy process and human rights and women’s rights and other issues, other principles which are the major principles of America, not only America, but of all human beings in the world, so for America to stay close to us there.

Maybe it is global position first, energy second, economy third, so these are the major points.

Again, I will say we have to take this responsibility for our country, but in general, in the global issue, in the regional issue, maybe it’s not our capacity to take care of all that.

So that’s why Americans should be close to us, but not in the middle of the streets to be targeted by the extremists and terrorists and to be reason for frictions and very bad emotions against Americans and hatred.

But to be very close to the region, but not to be a target for others, not to be victim of terrorism there, and when it’s necessary we can cooperate and take care of any bad job in the region and contain any conflict very soon.

For example, our community in Iraq. This is not secret to say that almost we were three major communities plus more than three, other smaller communities like Assyrian-Chaldean community like Turkmen and others. So there was, since 2005 ’till 2007, very difficult sectarian conflict. So Americans were in support of us to conflict that and to stop civil war.

So it was a great job. All Muslim, Shia and Sunni, has to appreciate that, that the Americans were more patriotic then than they were, because they were killing each other and Americans stopped that. Yes, we appreciate all sacrifices, but I can say it was a great job that brought peace there and stability there. Now they are all together.

Now, even now, still we have some conflict which is on ethnic basis.

The disputed area of Article 140, and the election provinces and the land problems and the other issues, so the Americans are the only neutral forces there. It is not Sunni, and it is not Shia. It is some friend forces there are neutral, from a country not built on an ethnic and religious basis. It is a secular and I can say civil state, America, not like some of our regional states here.

So the staying there, the delay of the forces of America there will help us to bring and to rehabilitate issues, make it stabilize. A stable situation there and prosperous life there and good economy there reflect positively on Europeans and Americans and everyone. And a conflict there, making problems on energy, making problems on all the economy of the world.

So those are the reasons that make Americans must be concerned to be more close to us and not to be easy targets for terrorism in the city.

AC: Thank you very much for your time today Mr. Kanna.

YK: That was fun.

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