Davar Ardalan, NPR News
Iraqi American Narmin Taib, pictured here at a shopping mall in Virginia, where she is a part-time makeup artist. She is one of 11,000 Iraqi Americans questioned by the FBI. Taib is also a full-time college student studying biology.
Investigating Iraqi Americans
» The United States is home to about 300,000 people of Iraqi origin, according to the Iraqi-American Council.
» The largest Iraqi American communities are in Michigan, California, Texas, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.
» The probe of Iraqi Americans began after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and was mainly aimed at keeping track of university students of Middle Eastern descent.
» More than 200,000 foreign nationals are currently studying in U.S. colleges and universities.
FBI officials say the questioning followed two themes:
» To detect any links between American Iraqis and Islamic militant groups.
» To gather information about Iraq's defenses and government, and possible weaknesses.
Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation and wire news reports
Davar Ardalan, NPR News
FBI national spokesperson Susan Dryden: "(FBI Director Robert Mueller) himself took on the lead on this and actually reached out to the Arab American community... help us gather information for national security."
As U.S. and British forces battle to topple Saddam Hussein's regime, Iraqis in the United States find themselves caught between U.S. intelligence and their own identities as Americans.
The FBI says that within days, it will conclude the questioning of 11,000 Iraqis who live in the United States. The bureau says the questioning is part of its anti-terrorism campaign — but agents are also trying to learn information useful to the war effort, as well as protect Iraqis from possible harrassment.
In mid-march, FBI agents fanned out to different Iraqi-American communities, carrying a letter in both Arabic and English that spelled out the investigation's ground rules, the rights of Iraqi Americans in the process and where interviewees could go for legal help.
Many Iraqis remain skeptical of how much useful intelligence could be provided by people who fled Iraq 10 or even 20 years ago. Some Iraqi U.S. citizens and legal residents say they welcome the efforts. Others, however, bitterly resent the interrogations, saying the probes damage the very freedom from oppression they sought.
NPR's Jacki Lyden met with some of those who got a knock on the door from FBI agents — people like Narmin Taib, who 12 years ago fled on foot through the Kurdish mountains as Saddam's soldiers ruthlessly quashed a revolt against his regime at the close of the Gulf War.
Today, Taib is a biology major at Shenandoah University in Virginia and a part-time makeup artist in the Washington, D.C., area. She has had two encounters with FBI investigators in recent months. "My job is to make people pretty and leave them with a smile," she tells Lyden. "Now I feel weird — I feel like someone's watching me all the time."
"I'm fine with it," she says of the questioning. "I don't know about other people."
As Lyden discovered, some Iraqi Americans feel betrayed by the suspicion. "Even though responding to the questioning is voluntary, other Iraqis feel the way the U.S. government has gone about this — a mass sweep of thousands — calls their American loyalty into question," Lyden says. "Perhaps worst of all, for some, is the echoes the questions create. Many came here to escape from Saddam Hussein and his repressive regime."
"The government knows that the majority of them have no ties with the regime in Baghdad," says Sayed Moustafa Al-Qazwini, Imam of the Islamic Educational Center in Orange County, California. "I lived in a culture in Iraq where every time they knocked at my door, I knew that someone was going to interrogate me. Now the same policy has been done again — the same thing is being done again."
The probe of Iraqi Americans signals the first time the FBI has internally investigated a community in this way, and suspicions remain. "Arab Americans are wary of being singled out over and over again as potential threats. The FBI has tried to assure them that this is not the case — even inviting Arab-American leaders to give input," Lyden says.