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Iraqi-Americans Uneasy about War, Law Enforcement Scrutiny - 2003-04-05

The war in Iraq is deeply troubling for many Iraqi-Americans. They are worried not just about their relatives back in the Middle East, but also the sudden scrutiny by U.S. law enforcement authorities.

Mohammed Alomari of Detroit, Michigan, has spent almost his entire life in the United States. But like many other Iraqi-Americans, he still has extended family in Iraq and has worried about them constantly since telephone communication with the country was cut.

"The first few nights, communications were still available, but right after that, after the telephone exchanges were bombed, we pretty much haven't been able to get a hold of anybody in Iraq," he says.

Mr. Alomari adds, however, that worries about overseas relatives are not Iraqi-Americans' only cause for unease. Many members of the community feel uncomfortable about a new Federal Bureau of Investigation program to interview thousands of Iraqi-born people living in the United States. The FBI says the purpose of the interviews is to gather intelligence about possible military targets in Iraq and potential terrorist threats at home, but some Iraqi-Americans now feel their loyalties are being questioned.

According to Mr. Alomari, many have, as a result, become too afraid to discuss the war publicly. "It's really unfortunate because it goes against the grain of what makes America great - the idea to be able to express yourself," he says.

FBI spokesmen say the government is seeking the help of the Iraqi community in the United States, that the interview program is voluntary and those interviewed are permitted to have a family member or some other representative present, if they wish. But Hodan Hassan, spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, says the FBI interviews may, in fact, be doing more harm than good.

"I think it does very little to increase the safety of our country, but does a lot more just to alienate groups that I think could be very useful," she says.

Ms. Hassan adds that although the FBI's program has caused unease in the Iraqi-American community, the agency has been doing a good job in prosecuting those accused of hate crimes and working with Iraqi-Americans who may have been victims of prejudice.

Another aspect of the war which troubles many Iraqi-Americans and others throughout the U.S. Muslim community concerns news coverage.

Ms. Hassan says she has heard many complaints that the U.S. news media, and specifically the major television networks, are focusing only on the military aspects of the conflict.

Mr. Alomari agrees, saying that while most Muslim Americans are worried about the war's impact on civilians in the region, U.S. coverage tends to gloss over this.

"There's an impression within the Iraqi-American community and within the Arab-American community in general, that national networks are biased," he says. "They're showing press conferences by the generals and some footage of tanks out in the desert, but other than that, they're not showing the civilian casualties or the civilian side to the war."

But while most Muslims in the United States are concerned over the fate of civilians in Iraq, the size and diversity of the community means that opinion on the war itself varies widely, from strong support to strong opposition.