With the aim of attracting support from Muslim states, Saddam Hussein has sought to portray himself as a defender of Islam against an imperialist West. To that end, he has abandoned long-standing secularist policies and stoked anti-Christian sentiment within Iraq -- not to mention his support for Hamas in its war on Israel. As a showdown looms with the U.S., no group within Iraq has been more negatively affected than the Assyrians, Iraq's indigenous Christians, who are likely to be pivotal in any long-term U.S. plan for the region. Indeed they might make the difference between stability and simmering civil war in northern areas which are too broadly (and ignorantly) considered exclusively Kurdish.
The Assyrian Christians, a non-Arab, Semitic people with a 5,000-year presence in northern Iraq, constitute some 5% to 10% of the Iraqi population. Despite constant threats from Muslim neighbors, they have kept their ethnic and linguistic identity alive and maintain a flourishing diaspora in Australia, Europe and North America. During the British Mandate that lasted from 1920 to 1932, the British employed the Assyrians as protectors of the Crown's interests in Iraq, only to abandon them shamefully when a newly independent Iraq entered the League of Nations in 1932. A year later, using the Assyrians' prior alliance with the British as a pretext for violence, the new Iraqi government launched an anti-Christian jihad in which scores of Assyrian civilians were murdered and their villages set on fire. Arab nationalists have continued to draw upon this Assyrian-British connection as evidence that Assyrians are agents of the Christian West.
Saddam's Baath Party, which came to power in 1968 as an Arab nationalist movement with ideological roots in European fascism, officially denies the existence of the Assyrians as a separate ethnic group and has implemented numerous policies in order to both ethnically cleanse the Assyrians from Iraq and to erase their identity as a distinct people. Iraqi officials, seeking to physically obliterate Assyrian civilization, have been involved in the looting and smuggling of priceless Assyrian artifacts. Speaking Assyrian in public carries great risks. The recent savage murder and beheading of a nun in Baghdad indicates the lengths to which the regime will go in order to terrify its Assyrian population.
The regime has likewise manipulated the U.N. sanctions to further their persecution of Assyrians. In order to participate in the oil-for-food program, Assyrians (like their neighbors, the Turkmens) must deny their identity on all government documents and register as either Arabs or Kurds, the two officially recognized Iraqi ethnic groups. Should they refuse, they face the prospect of starvation, or banishment to the Kurdish-controlled region in the northeast, where they face educational discrimination and general persecution at the hands of predominantly Muslim neighbors who sometimes derogatorily refer to Assyrians as "Christian Kurds." Indeed, Assyrians have bitterly accused Kurdish authorities, particularly the Kurdish Democratic Party, of deliberately working to undermine their rights in northern Iraq.
Given that the majority of Iraqi-Americans are Assyrians and not Arabs, Assyrian-American organizations should be given ample voice in shaping certain aspects of American foreign policy for a post-Saddam Iraq. It is thus to his credit that President Bush, in his Oct. 7 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, formally addressed Iraq's repression of its Assyrians. The Bush administration has taken specific steps to ensure that Assyrian rights be respected. Partially in response to pressure from Congressman Henry Hyde's advocacy on behalf of Assyrian-Americans, the State Department has welcomed Assyrian participation in planning for an Iraq free from Saddam's grasp. However, despite the fact that several Assyrian representatives are involved with Foggy Bottom's "Future of Iraq Project," the predominantly Muslim Iraqi opposition groups have been generally reluctant to partner with the Christian Assyrians.
This has not stopped Assyrian-American organizations from launching an extensive advocacy campaign on behalf of their brethren in Iraq. This has involved countering Kurdish attempts to declare much of the northern region their own, including the oil-rich towns of Kirkuk and Mosul, a land-grab which they have tried to sweeten by offering the Assyrians and Turkmens representation at a Kurdish parliament-to-be. Understandably, the Assyrians have rejected the offer. But not many Americans are aware of these behind-the-scenes tensions.
The recently formed Assyrian-American League, which calls for a secular and democratic Iraq, has hired former Illinois Congressman Michael Flanagan to be their lobbyist in Washington. Congressmen and policy planners seriously interested in the democratization of the region should reach out and work with this organization, as well as with other credible Assyrian organizations. At the very least, officials tasked with planning for both the coming war and its aftermath should seek out Assyrian-Americans' invaluable knowledge of Iraqi society. Assyrian-Americans have, likewise, courageously voiced their willingness to work with their Jewish compatriots to shape a democratic Middle East.
Given that both Saddam and Persian Gulf-based Islamists might incite mass violence against the Assyrians in the advent of an American-led attack on Iraq, the U.S. has a particular responsibility to prevent a repetition of the aforementioned 1933 massacres, in which the British stood idly by as their former allies were ruthlessly slaughtered. Indeed, the potential for massive ethnic violence in northern Iraq between Arabs, Assyrians, Kurds, and Turkmen remains high, particularly if the Baath regime were to fall quickly. The Bush administration must, therefore, remain cautious in endorsing an officially recognized Kurdish autonomous region for a federal Iraqi state without first providing legal safeguards for Assyrians, as well as for all other ethnic groups in the area.
The dearth of reliable census material and the results of decades of forcible assimilation in the region combine to make it extremely difficult to evaluate competing land claims for oil-rich territories in northern Iraq. Nevertheless, under the auspices of the 1932 Declaration of the Kingdom of Iraq, Assyrians arguably have viable land claims in the oil-rich Mosul Vilayet, a former Ottoman territory that the Council of the League of Nations annexed to Iraq in 1925. Given the fact that Assyrians in northern Iraq have been constant victims of ethnic cleansing, the international community should take their legal claims for land rights and due compensation as seriously as the competing Kurdish and Turkmen claims on Kirkuk, another oil-rich city whose dominion is hotly contested, and which could be witness to ethnic strife in the months and years ahead.
For reasons both moral and tactical, the Bush administration and Congress should continue, and heighten, its concern for the Assyrians in northern Iraq. America now has a golden opportunity to safeguard the rights of one of the Near East's most persecuted peoples, and to create a new reality that could redress various 20th-century injustices that have been perpetrated against them.
Mr. Lewis, a New York-based political analyst, is working on a history of the relationship between Great Power politics and ethnic minorities in the 20th-century Middle East.