WASHINGTON – The FBI is questioning as many as 50,000 Iraqis living in the United States in a search for potential terrorist cells, spies or people who might provide information helpful to a U.S. war effort.
Agents have fanned out across the country to interview Iraqis in their homes and where they work, study and worship. A senior government official, describing the program to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said the interviews began about six weeks ago and will last several months.
The FBI is looking for people who might wish to harm America or whose visas have expired. The agency also is seeking those who might be interested in helping the United States overthrow Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi president whose rule many of them fled.
About 300,000 people of Iraqi origin living in the United States, according to the Iraqi-American Council. There are large Iraqi communities in Michigan, California, Texas, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.
The Bush administration has long been searching for definitive links between Saddam's government and Al Qaeda or other terror organizations. Aziz al-Taee, chairman of the council, said people who have been interviewed told him the FBI is "asking if anybody knows someone who worked with Saddam. They asked about a list of some who have vanished. They are asking about terrorist cells."
Abigail Price, immigration director of the International Rescue Committee, said she was visited recently by FBI agents who said they were from the counterterror unit and were interested in various populations of refugees and where to find them.
Price said she spoke with some Iraqi Kurds in the Atlanta area who were interviewed by FBI agents. Many were upset, she said.
FBI agents are given sensitivity instructions from headquarters to stress that the interviews are voluntary and to assure people the government will protect them from any anti-Iraqi backlash.
Still, Price said, "They come to us because they are afraid. They ask, `Are they going to send us back? Have we done something wrong?' No matter how nice they are, it really is frightening."
According to the Iraqi-American Council, many people of Iraqi origin in the United States are of Kurdish ancestry; were part of the Shiite Muslim majority in Iraq, who are largely frozen out of political power there; or are Christians. Most in those groups are fundamentally opposed to Saddam and would have little interest in spying or becoming terrorists for his government, al-Taee said.
More than 50,000 Iraqis came to the United States after the 1991 Gulf War, and many became U.S. citizens. Al-Taee said those people probably would be willing to help the Bush administration, particularly in a domestic public relations campaign to support U.S. military action.
Administration officials say they are looking for any links between Iraqis in this country and possibly sympathetic radical Muslim groups, such as Al Qaeda and Hezbollah, which have their own anti-American agendas. Iraq's intelligence service, the Mukhabarat, is not viewed as a serious espionage threat within the United States.
Equally important to the government is identifying Iraqis who might know about weaknesses in Saddam's government or the country's defenses, or who might be in contact with people interested in defecting or providing crucial information. For these reasons, a key to the program is FBI interviews with educated or wealthy people such as doctors and businessmen living in the United States.
Some Iraqis are in the United States on temporary visas to attend school, visit relatives or do business. The Justice Department recently ordered all males in this group age 16 and above to be photographed and fingerprinted at immigration offices if they intend to stay for any length of time.
If their visas have expired or they have other immigration violations, the FBI can use the threat of deportation to gain information sought by the government, Justice Department officials said.
More than 77,000 mostly Middle Eastern or South Asian people are covered by similar registration orders and by tightened controls at U.S. borders. Justice Department officials say more than 23,400 men have registered with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, with more than 54,000 fingerprinted and photographed at the borders since last fall.
The effort has captured three known terrorists, according to government officials, who would not identify them or describe their whereabouts.