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Prospect of Guantanamo Uighurs in U.S. Fuels Fears

President Obama is reaching out around the world to find new homes for Guantanamo Bay detainees. But he is running into trouble in his own backyard.

Rep. Frank Wolf, a Republican lawmaker who represents some of the Virginia suburbs outside Washington, is fighting the possibility that Obama will resettle 17 Uighurs -- Turkic Muslims from western China -- in or near his district. That resistance comes despite Wolf's history of supporting Uighurs. Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently acknowledged that some of the Uighurs are likely to be released in the United States, but the administration has not announced plans to move them.

Wolf's efforts, and those of other lawmakers, could derail Obama's attempts to resettle detainees in other nations, especially those in Europe, which have cheered Obama's plans to close Guantanamo Bay next year.

Obama hopes Europeans and other allies will back up their words of support by accepting some of the prisoners. Last week, a Guantanamo detainee, Lakhdar Boumediene, was released to live in France, which accepted the Algerian as a gesture to the Obama administration.

But U.S. officials say they will be hard-pressed to persuade other countries to accept released detainees when the United States has not done so. Attorney General Eric Holder said as much last month, telling an audience in Berlin that to close Guantanamo, "we must all make sacrifices and we must all be willing to make unpopular choices."

So far, that is not happening. The House of Representatives passed a war spending bill last week that forbids releasing Guantanamo detainees in the U.S. The bill now goes to the Senate.

On Sunday, Virginia's senior senator, Democrat Jim Webb, added his name to those opposed to relocating the Uighurs to Virginia, home to the United States' largest Uighur community. Monday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called for a vote on keeping Guantanamo detainees out of the U.S., saying Americans "don't want these men in their neighborhoods."

Uighurs are from Xinjiang -- an isolated region that borders Afghanistan, Pakistan and six Central Asian nations -- and say they have been repressed by the Chinese government. China has long said that insurgents are leading an Islamic separatist movement in Xinjiang. The Uighur detainees were captured in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2001. China has demanded their extradition, but the United States has refused to do so.

"The best indication we have so far as we look through their files is that they went to Afghanistan, not to take up arms against the United States -- and this is not to excuse that -- but to oppose the Chinese government," Holder said during a congressional hearing last week.

Wolf is a longtime advocate of the Uighurs and a fierce critic of China. In an interview, he said he still supports Uighurs, but "a terrorist is a terrorist is a terrorist." He noted the path that landed these particular Uighur detainees in Afghanistan, and expressed concerns that they might have become "radicalized" in Guantanamo.

"This could be a deal stopper," said Sarah Mendelson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who published recommendations last year on how to close Guantanamo. "I don't see how we close Guantanamo if Congress passes legislation saying we can't take in detainees."

In a May 1 letter to Obama, Wolf asked for declassification of all intelligence surrounding the Uighurs' capture, detention and the administration's assessment of the threat they may pose.

"The American people deserve to have all the facts about these individuals before they should be expected to tolerate their presence in our communities," Wolf wrote.