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Iraqi exile voters put Chaldo-Assyrian Christian in Iraqi assembly

BAGHDAD, Iraq _Yonadam Kanna owes his seat in the new Iraqi National Assembly to people from places such as Detroit and San Jose, Calif., who voted for his slate in the Jan. 30 elections.

Without the 18,538 votes he received from expatriates, Kanna's slate would have been about 12,000 votes short of the number required to secure a seat in the assembly. Though more than 260,000 expatriates voted, Kanna's National Two Rivers slate is one of only three that received more than half their votes from abroad, and it's the only one that owes its seat on the assembly to expatriate votes.

Kanna said that isn't surprising: Generations of persecution sent many of his constituents into exile. The Two Rivers slate represents the Chaldo-Assyrians, a small Christian minority here that speaks a modern-day version of Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

Kanna insists that his slate would have received more votes if it weren't for alleged voting irregularities. But, flawed though it may be, Iraq's nascent democracy is an important improvement over the past, he said.

"There were a lot of irregularities everywhere—we were expecting 10 or 12 seats—but still we are happy because the democratic process has begun," Kanna said, sitting in his office in a vast compound once occupied by a brutal security force run by one of Saddam Hussein's sons.

The irony of his office location delights Kanna, who said he was twice sentenced to death for opposing Saddam's regime.

"Three hundred thousand criminals trained here," he said. "There are torture rooms here."

Kanna recounted stories of family members killed, Christian churches and monasteries burned and villages destroyed during Saddam's "faith campaign" in the 1990s.

A member of Iraq's exiled opposition for years, Kanna's eager to begin governing and has already engaged in Iraq's post-election political horse-trading.

He's hoping to barter his lone vote for the protection of his community by working with the new opposition led by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi to block a constitution based on Islamic law. The slate that took the most seats, about 140, was blessed by a conservative Shiite Muslim cleric and has ties to the fundamentalist regime in Iran, but many here think it won't have a big enough majority in the 275-seat assembly to form a religious-based government.

Kanna's constituents in San Jose are proud that they helped put him in a position where he may be able to help prevent that. But they too are concerned that many Chaldo-Assyrians were prevented from voting, either because polling stations abroad were too far from their homes—a common complaint that crosses ethnic and religious lines—or because of irregularities in Ninevah province, where the Chaldo-Assyrian community is strongest.

"We're happy to have a representative in the new assembly, but at the same time we're very much disappointed in the turnout," said Firas Jatou, director of an information-technology firm in San Jose. "It's understandable for Baghdad not to have a large turnout. I have relatives in Baghdad who opted not to vote out of fear. However, here in the U.S. we were hoping for better."

He said the distance of the polling stations prevented many from voting. He and his wife traveled 16 hours round-trip to register in Irvine, south of Los Angeles, and another 16 hours later in the week to vote.

"At least we can speak out about the injustices, whereas in the past, under Saddam, you would be taken away," he said.

Kanna's Michigan constituents have equally mixed feelings about his victory.

"We feel successful that we have one person who is representing us," said Dr. Joseph Kassab, an instructor at Wayne State University in Detroit and the president of the Chaldean National Congress. The group mounted an aggressive get-out-the-vote campaign and provided buses to bring voters in the United States to distant polling centers. "But the people who went and voted, the number was very anemic."

Kassab estimates that about 6,000 of the approximately 10,000 Iraqis who voted in Michigan were Chaldo-Assyrians. That number couldn't be verified, but if true it would mean that Kanna's Michigan constituents alone pushed his slate into the National Assembly. U.S. Census figures show there are 51,000 Chaldo-Assyrians in the United States, about 30,000 of them in the Detroit metropolitan area.

"We are underrepresented, but this is the first step towards democracy," Kassab said.

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(Nesmith reports for the Miami Herald.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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