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Detroiter works for Iraq peace
By Cameron McWhirter / The Detroit News
Max Ortiz / The Detroit News
Detroit grocery store owner Tom Simaan leads the American-Iraqi Friendship Federation that is trying to establish links between the feuding U.S. and Iraq. He is headed back to Iraq this week.
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Civilization's cracked cradle: Bloody purges, religious strife mark history of modern Iraq
The News sends team to Iraq
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DETROIT -- As he walks along aisles of paper towels, soda and canned soup at his grocery store in the Lafayette Park shopping center, Tom Simaan looks exactly like what he has been for most of his adult life -- a hardworking small businessman, one of tens of thousands of Iraqi immigrants across Metro Detroit.
Sitting in his cramped office full of money orders and shipment forms, Simaan doesn't look like a shuttle diplomat trying to diffuse the world's hottest political crisis: the showdown between the United States and Iraq.
But the 55-year-old immigrant leads a small organization called the American-Iraqi Friendship Federation that has become one of the world's few tentative links between the feuding governments.
This week Simaan, now a U.S. citizen, is heading back to what he calls his motherland. The Detroit News is traveling with him to visit the troubled nation.
Simaan spent last summer meeting with high-ranking U.S. and Iraqi officials in a failed effort to establish dialogue between the two hostile nations.
He met with Michigan U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, a longtime friend. He met in Washington, D.C., with Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. Then he spent two and half months in Iraq and met with, among others, Tariq Aziz, Iraq's deputy prime minister. He exchanged messages and proposals among the various parties. His humble efforts went nowhere.
"To be honest with you, so far it hasn't worked," Simaan said glumly.
That flat declaration comes as President George W. Bush continued to press this week for military action against Saddam Hussein. Meanwhile, Saddam declared from Baghdad that his army was preparing to defend itself from attack.
Works for peace
Simaan's American-Iraqi Friendship Federation was founded in 1994 to promote "a healthy and positive relationship between American and Iraqi people," according to the group's mission statement. The group is one of many local organizations working to help those suffering in Iraq.
Thanks to Simaan's good relations with the Michigan Democratic Party and with Iraqi officials, the group has had better success than most in negotiating the tense middle ground between the two sides.
The group began with efforts to collect medical supplies and equipment from Metro Detroit and send them to Iraq, then suffering severely under sanctions imposed by the United Nations in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War. Simaan and other group members made several trips to Iraq with medical supplies. In 1996, the group worked with the U.S. State Department to help secure the release of detained American journalists in Iraq.
The group also lobbied the U.S. Congress for the lifting of sanctions and supported the "oil-for-food" arrangement of 1998 that allowed Iraq to sell some oil legally on the world market in exchange for food and other necessary, non-military supplies.
But the group's goal of friendship remains remote.
Left Baghdad in 1963
Simaan, a Chaldean, immigrated to Detroit from Baghdad in 1963. Like many in Detroit's Chaldean community, the largest such community outside of Iraq, he joined a small family shop here.
Most urban Chaldeans -- old-rite Catholic Iraqi Christians who speak the ancient language of Aramaic -- were shop owners in Iraq before immigrating to Detroit, where a handful of Chaldeans moved at the turn of the last century.
The vast majority of Chaldeans in Metro Detroit are descendants of people who came from one small town in northern Iraq called Tel Kaif. Chaldean immigrants trickled to the area in the first part of the 1900s, but tens of thousands immigrated in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
Southeast Michigan also is home to thousands of Assyrians, Iraqi Christians who are not affiliated with the Chaldean church, and Muslim Arab Iraqis. Since the Gulf War, Metro Detroit has received another wave of Iraqi immigrants, this time largely from that nation's Shi'ite population. Many have settled in Dearborn, long a traditional magnet for Arab immigrants.
The Detroit region is home to one of the largest communities of Arabs in the world outside of the Middle East.
Simaan's immediate family members all have immigrated. But Simaan, a grandfather who lives in Bloomfield Hills, said he started working to try to reduce tensions between the United States and Iraq because he found himself worrying about the people in Iraq. After the Persian Gulf War, he kept hearing from friends about the hardships imposed on his home country and decided that he had to try something.
Careful with words
Simaan doesn't have much good to say about Saddam Hussein, but he chooses his words carefully.
"Personally, I don't care for him," Simaan said recently. "But I care for the people of Iraq. He is only one man."
Simaan is fairly candid about the extent of government control in Iraq. Asked if he spoke Aramaic, the language of Chaldeans, with fellow Chaldean Tariq Aziz when they met this summer, Simaan shook his head. Using Aramaic would have been considered too secretive and possibly treasonous in a country where speaking against the president is a capital offense.
"Absolutely no, because you don't know who is listening and that could cause troubles," he said. "Even if I asked Mr. Aziz a question in my language, he would probably just ignore the question. We spoke English."
Asked if he has been watched on previous trips to Iraq, Simaan said he doesn't know.
"Even if they are (watching), I don't care because I'm not doing anything wrong. They can watch me if they want," he said.
Simaan is more open with his criticism of President George W. Bush, whom he believes is ramping up political tensions for the benefit of Republican Party candidates in the November election.
He also believes that Bush is interested in securing oil and ousting Saddam, who frustrated Bush's father by remaining in office after 1991. Iraq has the world's second-largest supply of oil, after Saudi Arabia.
"Why is this a problem now? Why talk about war now?" Simaan, a longtime Democrat, asked.
He said that any conflict between the United States and Iraq would result in a slaughter of the Iraqis.
"Don't call it a war," he said. "You're going to bomb the hell out of them and kill a lot of innocent people. That's not a war."
While Simaan's sentiments represent one end of the political spectrum, Metro Detroit's large Chaldean community is divided about whether military action is necessary.
"The community is very torn," said Alan Mansour, producer of Chaldean Voice, a weekly radio program on 690-AM. "You have to understand that we have close relatives over there so we don't want to see people get hurt. But Saddam is already destroying the country, so what other choice is there? We're stuck both ways."
Mansour said the hushed debate over military action against Iraq is being held in every Chaldean household these days. Many Chaldeans feel -- unlike Simaan -- that the United States must take some kind of military action.
"No matter what (the Iraqi government) claims things to be like in Iraq, we know what it is really like," Mansour said. "Many of us don't like war, but at the same time we don't see any other way to get rid of Saddam."
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