FBI interviews thousands of Iraqis in U.S.

AP Minority Issues Writer

Ghassan Hanna served the FBI agents tea, and answered their questions while his 11/2-year-old daughter slept on his shoulder.

Another man was awakened by a loud knock at his door. Still another couldn’t believe the casually dressed man and woman were federal agents, and asked for another look at their badges.

Thousands of Iraqi immigrants are being questioned this week by FBI agents, who say they’re searching for information about possible terrorists and reassuring Iraqis that the agency won’t tolerate hate crimes.

While individual experiences have varied, advocates, lawyers and those interviewed say agents have been mostly polite and _ at times _ even friendly. Still, that doesn’t mean all their visits have been welcome. Some have used their interviews to chide agents for singling out Iraqis.

During some sessions, which have lasted from 15 minutes to more than an hour, agents have read from a list of typed questions.

They asked about people’s immigration status, their lives in Iraq, why they left, if they attend a mosque, the names of family members and whether they knew of any terrorists in the United States. Men and women, American citizens and recent immigrants, have all been interviewed.

The two men in suits who showed up at Hanna’s Union City, Calif., home got an earful after asking what he thought of Saddam’s regime. Hanna left Iraq two weeks after Saddam came to power to escape a warrant for his arrest.

“I spent a good deal of time giving them a good history lesson, a good background,” said the 45-year-old engineer.

An American citizen, Hanna said the questioning sends a message that “U.S. citizenship is nothing more than a piece of paper,” that the government doesn’t “trust your loyalty.”

Agents have interviewed about 1,000 people a day since the war started, and by the end of this week hope to complete an initial plan of speaking with 11,000 Iraqis in the United States.

Those people were selected from a larger list of about 50,000 because they had recently traveled to Iraq or had ties to the Iraqi military, officials said.

In one case, an agent asked a Miami taxi driver who fled Iraq and a warrant for his arrest there if he could return to recruit intelligence sources, said immigration attorney Tammy Fox-Isicoff, who sat in on the interview. The immigrant declined.

When Mohammed Al-Jaibaji saw two agents, one wearing a ski jacket, walking up to his house last week, he thought they were salespeople. After double-checking their badges, Al-Jaibaji, 43, told them he left Iraq at age 18 to study at the University of Kansas.

“It didn’t bother me,” said Al-Jaibaji, a certified public accountant who lives in San Mateo, Calif. “They were very cordial and friendly. There was no sense of intimidation or interrogation.”

That wasn’t the case for Pishdar Mirawadli, who was awakened by a loud knocking at his door one morning last week when he was off from work. When the agents asked him for his immigration documents, Mirawadli, a clothing store quality control inspector, called his lawyer.

“They started cussing at me. They told me, ‘Shut up,”’ and used an obscenity as his wife and three children looked on, said Mirawadli, 28, a refugee from northern Iraq who settled in Harrisonburg, Va.

Basam Alhussaini said the two agents who visited his home on Monday night were polite, but unwelcome.

“We don’t appreciate you coming here asking questions like this,” the San Dimas, Calif., engineer told them. “We’re being profiled because of our ethnicity and background.”

FBI spokesman Paul Bresson said the interviews are intended to build relationships with Iraqis “so that there’s some solid trust and a foundation.” Officials hope Iraqis will “come to us if they have information they should pass along to help with our overall mission in protecting national security,” he said.

To Ali Alkoraishi, 53, the agents who sat in his living room seemed jumpy.

“Every time one of us moved, they were a little bit edgy,” said Alkoraishi, a Saratoga, Calif., psychiatrist, whose wife and four children sat with him during the interview.

The agents were particularly interested in a picture of Alkoraishi’s medical school graduating class in Iraq, asking him for names and whereabouts of schoolmates. They also wanted details about military hospitals in Iraq.

Then, they asked Alkoraishi and his wife what they hoped for the future of Iraq.

“I told them, ‘I’ve been here 25 years. The biggest change in my life was to experience freedom, expression of speech,” Alkoraishi said. “We really appreciate the fact you’re able to speak your mind here.”