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For Assyrians, Mixed Feelings : Ethnic ties: Most living in U.S. hate Saddam Hussein. But they fear for the lives of loved ones still in Iraq.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Saturday nights used to be a festive time at Arbela’s, an Assyrian restaurant on Chicago’s far North Side.

The dimly lit, sand-colored room would fill around midnight, after the regular dinner crowd had gone. Members of Chicago’s large Assyrian community would gather to sing and dance to the music of their native land, now called Iraq.

Then the allied forces began bombing runs on Baghdad on Jan. 17.

Even though most Assyrian-Americans hate Saddam Hussein, “they don’t feel like singing out and dancing and having fun,” said an elegantly dressed man at the restaurant one recent Saturday night. Many still have family members and friends in Iraq they have not been in contact with since the war began. “They don’t know who’s still alive,” he said.

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Since the allied bombing began, Assyrian-Americans with roots in Iraq have been placed in a difficult and emotionally wrenching position. Now, with the Persian Gulf perched on the brink of a ground war, the tension has intensified.

They profess undying loyalty to the United States, and many would like nothing better than to see the demise of Hussein, whom they claim has brutally oppressed them. Yet at the same time they fear that their native country--and thousands of their former countrymen--will be destroyed in the war.

“It’s very hard,” said David, a 28-year-old Assyrian who asked that his real name not be printed. “We love this country,” he said of the United States. “But you can’t say forget Iraq. You can’t do that. You have memories of there, good times there. Your family’s there.”

For David, family includes two brothers who are soldiers in the Iraqi army. Professing his intense dislike for Hussein, David said in heavily accented English, “I wouldn’t mind volunteering” for the U.S. Army. “But I don’t know who’s in Kuwait now. If I go volunteer I may shoot my brother. I may shoot my first cousin.”

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Isam Behmam, a young singer who performs on weekends at Arbela’s, said he left his entire family behind in Kirkut, a city not far from Baghdad that is the location of an air force base and an oil company. The city has been bombed, he said, and he has no idea if any of his relatives were hurt in the attacks.

“The last time I communicated with them was a week before the first night of bombing of Baghdad,” he said. “It’s hard to perform, but it’s my job. I’ve got to do it. I wish I could help. But the only thing I can say is peace, for both countries.”

In all, almost 300,000 Assyrians live in the United States, with 23,000 living in Los Angeles (the third-largest Assyrian community in the country), according to the Assyrian Universal Alliance Foundation, a Chicago-based organization that assists refugees. With 68,000 Assyrian residents, Chicago has more Assyrians than any city in the United States.

The ancient Assyrians ruled Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, until 612 BC, when their empire fell to civil war and foreign invasion. Approximately 1.5 million Assyrians remain in what today is Iraq, maintaining a national identity, language and culture.

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Assyrians, among the first people to convert to Christianity, began to migrate to the United States in small numbers in the early 1900s, with emigration increasing after World War II. Because many Iraqi Assyrians sided with the Kurds during the 14-year Iraqi-Kurdish war, another wave of emigration followed the Kurdish defeat in 1975.

In a full-page advertisement in the New York Times earlier this month, a coalition of international Assyrian organizations spoke of the “unbridled terror” that has marked Hussein’s regime, including the destruction of Assyrian villages and churches, executions and the refusal to acknowledge an Assyrian national identity or to permit the teaching of their language.

Yet even outspoken foes of Hussein--those who suggest it might have been a good thing if the United States had engineered a coup or the assassination of the Iraqi president--cannot help but be deeply aggrieved at what is taking place now.

“We are in between,” said the elegantly dressed man who was at Arbela’s, a middle-aged Assyrian who left Iraq in 1975. “We are citizens. I have lived here 14 years. This is my country. I love this country. That’s why I came here.”

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But of the allied bombing, he said: “What they’re doing is not against the government; it’s against the people. If they want to fight (Hussein’s forces), they should go to Kuwait. There are a half-million soldiers there. Why are they bombing Baghdad?”

“To me at this point, I could care less if Saddam Hussein is there or not there,” said Hany Baba, owner of Arbela’s, who said he fears not only for the loss of innocent lives but also the destruction of 7,000-year-old antiquities, remnants of mankind’s first known civilization. “They could have found any other solution but this.”

In addition to fears about the widespread destruction and death, many Assyrians--like other Americans--have other reservations about U.S. involvement in the war.

“Basically, I don’t like (Hussein), but the United States’ got no business over there,” said Bano Adde, an Assyrian of Syrian origin who said the war is being fought over oil profits. “It should be between Arabs only.”

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David, the young man with brothers in the Iraqi army, has made two trips to Iraq in the past year. The last time, he was there when his brother was released in June by the Iranians who had held him as a prisoner of war. It was the first time they had seen each other in 10 years. “We partied for three nights,” he said.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait, David was among the U.S. citizens who were prevented from leaving the country. What he saw there, among family and friends in his hometown, sickened him. Economic conditions were far worse than when he left the country in 1980.

“The town where I lived, they get like 1.2 million barrels of oil a day from the town I live only,” he said. “But where does the money go? Why don’t we be like Kuwait, where they drive American cars and everything is brand new? When it rains you can’t walk the streets . . . just all water. The pipes flood. All the money goes to the army.”

Of the army, he said: “They can’t even walk. Only the Republican Guard, only their food is good. . . . I’m telling you what I saw there. They can’t walk. They say they’re tired. They’ve just ended an eight-year war with Iran. It’s a hard life. . . . “

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Despite the fact that he fears many family members and friends will die in the war, David said he agrees with the way the United States is waging it. This is the only way, he said.

“Don’t mention my name,” he said. “You see, I may go back home after the war is over. I may visit to see who’s alive and who’s dead, if they let Americans visit Iraq.”


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