Iraq's national elections next month will reach out to the Northern San Joaquin Valley, where some 10,000 people will be eligible to cast ballots for candidates in the new democracy.
The potential for all those votes drew Yonadam Kanna, a member of the Iraqi parliament, to Modesto on Saturday. He spoke at a rally to drum up support for the Assyrian Democratic Movement, an alliance of Assyrian and Chaldean Christians pushing for minority rights in the Muslim country.
Iraq's Constitution promises five seats to Assyrian and Chaldean Christians. Kanna wants to keep as many as he can in his party, which he describes as independent from the country's dominant Muslim blocs.
He attracts a wealth of respect among the valley's Assyrian community, which established a foothold in Turlock a century ago. He was a marked dissident against Saddam Hussein's regime, and he's been involved with the Iraqi government since the dictator's downfall in 2003.
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He took a break to speak with The Bee about the new Iraq.
Q: Why is it important for U.S. soldiers to remain in Iraq?
A: We still need neutral forces in places where there are disputes, like between Irbil and Baghdad. (Iraq has a Kurdish regional government based in Irbil, and it is often at odds with Arabic leaders in Baghdad). We still need an air force, because that's not ready.
When Americans withdraw from Iraq, they must withdraw like friends, like winners, and not like losers, like occupiers. There will be a big impact around the world if their withdrawal is like Somalia. That will encourage terrorists.
Q: There have been some massive attacks against Iraqi government buildings since August. Who do you think is behind them?
A: They're trying to destabilize the situation and make the authorities lose their credibility. I can't say who it is for sure. They are enemies of the new Iraq.
Q: What can Assyrians and Chaldeans in the United States do in this upcoming election?
A: I'm calling my people here to go and vote. It's very important for them. It is their duty and it is their right.
We are independent in the Assyrian Democratic Movement. We are trying to have our free will so people will respect it.
Q: What is the condition of Assyrian and Chaldean people in Iraq today?
A: In my opinion, we are moving in the right direction. I am sure that things are improving. Corruption is the next major obstacle. That's the first thing after the election: Go after corrupt people. Then we will have a good country for investment.
Q: You've been fighting for decades. Any plans to step down?
A: The conflict is still there. There is no civil peace and rule of order. It's difficult to give up. When there is real peace, it will be time to retire and put some young people forward.
Iraqi Americans can vote in the election March 5-7. There is a movement to bring a poll to Modesto; it is under consideration at the Iraqi High Electoral Commission.