CERES, Calif. – For years, an Iraqi exile leader in California's Central Valley has done his best to irritate Saddam Hussein, beaming news and commentary into Iraq over a satellite network he runs from a castle-like building just off the interstate in this small farming town.
Sargon Dadesho's efforts touched a nerve — so much so that Iraq sent a hit man to kill him 13 years ago. The plot failed, thanks in part to the FBI, and Dadesho finally collected $2.4 million last week in frozen Iraqi assets to compensate for his emotional distress.
Now Dadesho plans to use some of the money to help rebuild Iraq — and do what he can to revive the ancient Assyrian culture.
"We have been promised by God that there will be a revival of Assyria," said Dadesho, a grocer's son who fled Iraq as a teenager nearly 40 years ago. "But even if we don't get our own land, we're willing to share with our friends, the Arabs and the Kurds. And we'll leave the rest of it in the hands of God."
Dadesho is president of the Assyrian National Congress, an umbrella group of Iraqi Christians in exile, and vice president of the Free Iraqi Council, a London-based group led by Sa'ad Jabr, the Muslim son of a former Iraqi prime minister. He said he has returned to northern Iraq many times over the past 20 years to participate in opposition talks and hopes to play a role in any interim Iraqi leadership.
"I'll do my part in helping the Iraqi people after the liberation," Dadesho said. "And I want to be one of the first Americans visiting Baghdad. We have a lot of work to do."
Dadesho may have a hard time landing a prominent role. Experts on Iraq say his exile groups have little clout inside the country, which would make Dadesho's dream of establishing an autonomous region in Iraq for Christian Assyrians even more quixotic.
"This is the sort of idea that you might cultivate like a rare flower in sunny California but I see no connection with reality on the ground in Iraq," said Joseph Montville with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Any new government will likely do all it can to prevent other elements of Iraq's population — such as the Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Kurds and ethnic Turks — from splintering the nation. Assyrians are just one of several Christian minorities among Iraq's 22 million people, most of whom are Muslim.
The Assyrian empire once flourished in ancient Mesopotamia, an area about the size of Kansas that covers parts of present-day Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq. Centuries of war scattered the population around the globe.
According to the Chicago-based Assyrian International News Agency, some 400,000 Assyrians live in the United States, the largest population outside of Iraq and Syria. Some 6,200 live in Stanislaus County, the largest population in California, according to the 2000 census.
They began coming to Ceres in the late 1800s because "it reminds them of their home country," said Emanuel Warda, who immigrated from Iran and helps run the satellite network. "It's the climate, seasonal changes and the Mediterranean weather."
Janet Shummon, 49, president of the Assyrian American Leadership Council in Modesto, said many in the community hope to visit Iraq next spring to celebrate the Assyrian new year at the sites of the ancient cities of Nineveh and Babylon. "That's our dream," she said.
Dadesho speaks the ancient Assyrian language of Aramaic, and he dreams of returning to the country of his birth, though he says America will always remain his home. He said his newfound wealth will come in handy as he tries to change from a life of exile to that of a participant in a new Iraq.
"My only regret is that Saddam Hussein will not live long enough to find out that I got even with him," Dadesho said.