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Assyrian Wants More Than Castles in the Air

Sargon Dadesho, who was the target of a hit by Saddam Hussein, hopes there is a place for his people in postwar Iraq.

March 29, 2003|Mark Arax | Times Staff Writer

CERES, Calif. — Here rules one of the exiled leaders of ancient Iraq, a man with a castle but no country, at least not yet.

He is an Assyrian, which is another way of saying he has a long memory.

Sargon Dadesho has not forgotten that a decade ago Saddam Hussein's regime sent a hit man to this little farm town along California 99 to shoot him between the eyes, a plot the FBI managed to foil.

He has not forgotten the endless list of conquerors and betrayers of the Assyrian tribe, one of the world's oldest civilizations, vanquished in 612 BC and since dispersed around the globe for more than two millenniums.

His castle, turrets and all, is the ethnic group's cultural center, modeled after the historic Assyrian capital of Nineveh. For Dadesho, who works here day and night, it doubles as a headquarters for an Assyrian nation-in-waiting.

Past the big hall where they're holding Wednesday night's bingo game, Dadesho plots his sweet revenge, which includes returning to Iraq to reclaim a remnant of the Assyrian empire, vanished from modern-day maps.

Seven days a week, 24 hours a day, Dadesho and his cohorts beam news and entertainment programs from inside the castle to fellow Assyrians and Arabs in the Middle East, Europe, Canada, Mexico, as well as in Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit. KBSV-TV Channel 23, or "Assyria Sat," is believed to be the only live, nongovernmental broadcast that bounces via satellite from America to the deserts and hills of Iraq.

How many Iraqis actually can receive the signal -- and Dadesho's call to rise up and overthrow Saddam -- is anyone's guess. But in these heady days when the thought of a new Assyria seems like more than a mere dream, it hardly seems to matter if the audience is one or 1 million.

Saddam will be toppled sooner or later, he believes, opening up all sorts of possibilities for a people who go back 6,753 years.

"We are the indigenous people of Iraq," says 53-year-old Dadesho, whose first name, Sargon, means "King of Light" in the Aramaic language that Jesus Christ spoke. "Who, if not the Assyrians, deserves an autonomous region within a new Iraq?

"It's a dream, I know. But after 2,500 years of waiting patiently for our nation's return, the dream now seems possible."

He is a small man, no more than 5-feet-6, with a meticulous mustache and thinning hair he dyes a shade red. With his dark, brooding eyes, he looks a little like Omar Sharif. Get him started on the subject of the Assyrians, though, and his cultural pride overflows, more like Papa Gus in the movie "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."

"We invented the first alphabet, the first calendar and the concept of the number zero.... Before the Greeks, before the Persians and the Romans and the Egyptians and the Jews and the Armenians, there were the Assyrians. We are before everybody, the Chinese too. We are the first empire of the world."

Dadesho (pronounced Dah-DEE-shoo) is an acknowledged leader of the American exiles, struggling to preserve the legacy of ancient Mesopotamia, the land of two rivers that the Assyrians call Bet Nahrain.

The son of a grocer born in the central Iraqi town of Habbanya, he fled his homeland in 1965 and landed in this corner of Stanislaus County, where 15,000 other Assyrian exiles came to work the land.

He became president of the Assyrian National Congress, an umbrella group representing exiles worldwide, and a founder of the Bet-Nahrain Democratic Party, which members say still controls a small militia in northern Iraq.

Still, Dadesho might have escaped the notice of the Iraqi regime were it not for a one-hour weekly television program that he produced in the mid-1980s, mixing Assyrian news and songs with caricatures of Saddam. The videos of Dadesho championing an autonomous state for Assyrians made their way from Ceres to Beirut to Baghdad.

Soon, he found himself on Saddam's hit list of dissidents living on foreign soil.

The assigned killer was a local Assyrian who had recorded a few songs in Dadesho's studio and painted houses on the side. In the winter of 1990, the FBI recorded a telephone conversation between the handyman and the first secretary of the Iraqi Mission to the United Nations. For $50,000, on direct orders from Saddam's cousin, he was to shoot Dadesho "between the eyes."

In published reports at the time, the FBI acknowledged that it made a series of blunders. If not for the hit man trying to recruit a driver who turned out to be Dadesho's cousin, the plot might have succeeded.

In the end, the hired gunman left the country and Dadesho won a $2.5-million federal court judgment against the Iraqi government for its role in the plot.

But he is far too busy to fret about when he might receive his share of the nation's frozen assets.

When he is not writing and delivering his three-hour news and commentary program, which appears three times a week, he is helping produce other cultural programs and even an Aramaic-language word game.

Away from the studio, Dadesho serves as a local political power broker. He played an instrumental role in getting the Assyrians of Ceres, Modesto and Turlock to remain loyal to former Rep. Gary A. Condit in his darkest days.

"You have to remember our history," he explains. "First Persia, then Alexander the Great, then the Parthian, then the Arabs, Mongols, Turks and then the Arabs again. The list of our conquerors is long, and we have rejected all of them, in spirit.

"That history has taught us one thing: You remain loyal to your friends."

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