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March 20, 2003
 
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FBI Begins Interviewing Iraqis in United States

Reuters


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By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With the U.S.-led war in Iraq under way, the FBI began on Thursday to interview thousands of Iraqis in an effort to get information about possible attacks in this country, but the tactic drew criticism from Arab-American and civil liberties groups.

FBI officials said agents in its field offices launched a concerted program of voluntary interviews of Iraqi-born individuals in the United States, a plan the groups denounced as profiling based on a person's background.

If subjects refuse to be interviewed, and they are in the country legally, they will not face any reprisals, U.S. officials said.

One FBI official described the questioning, which had been disclosed on Monday night as part of a wide range of tighter security steps, as an attempt to get the cooperation of the Iraqis "in the ongoing war on terrorism."

The officials said the interviews were designed to get the Iraqis to come forward if they have any knowledge of potential attacks inside the United States.

But Dalia Hashad, the American Civil Liberties Union's Arab, Muslim and South Asian advocate, said the FBI questioning may end up hampering rather than helping the effort to apprehend terrorists.

"In the same breath that they are asking for assistance from Iraqi nationals in thwarting terrorism, the FBI is alienating people by treating them like suspects and discouraging them from consulting with an attorney, which is their right," she said.

Hashad said the ACLU has been fielding phone calls from frightened Iraqis, many of whom fled Saddam Hussein's regime and are concerned the U.S. government has targeted them for questioning merely because of their country of origin.

A spokesman for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations said, "We are always disturbed when the basis for any law enforcement action is race, ethnicity or religion."

He said the actions should be based on "probable cause of wrongdoing, not on a person's background."

FBI officials said the questioning also was designed to assure Iraqi nationals that the law enforcement agency would investigate any hate crimes committed against them.

"It is ironic that the government is promising to protect Iraqis against hate crimes, which are attacks based on a person's ethnicity, skin color or religion -- in other words, the very kind of profiling the government is resorting to," Hashad said.

Similar interviews of thousands of Middle Eastern men in the United States took place after the Sept 11, 2001, attacks.

Willie Hulon, the FBI's head agent in Detroit, said the agency would try to interview "well under 400" Iraqi immigrants in Michigan, out of about 25,000 living in the state.

He said the FBI drew up its list of immigrants based on their education, work experience or military background, as well as any recent travel in Iraq.

"They have no reason to fear us. We're not going out to round anyone up or anything like that. We're looking for information," Hulon said.

Copyright 2003 Reuters News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

 
 
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