FBI officials are meeting privately with Muslim leaders in Southern California, assuring them that hate crimes resulting from a possible war with Iraq will be vigorously investigated, and at the same time asking for help in the campaign against terrorism.
The agency's effort to forge a partnership with Muslim and other Middle Eastern communities is also intended to quell fears in the Iraqi American community, where FBI agents are questioning people to identify possible terrorists or sympathizers of Saddam Hussein as the United States inches closer to war with Iraq.
The meetings are a welcome change from the way the FBI went about its investigation after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said Hussam Ayloush, head of the Anaheim-based Southern California chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations.
"In 2001, the FBI looked at every one of us as suspects. They've made it clear to us that they want to view us as partners in our country's war against terrorism," Ayloush said.
The FBI is also reaching out to Chaldeans, Iraqi Catholics often targeted by hate groups during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and after the Sept. 11 attacks.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller began the outreach Feb. 28, when he met in Washington with national leaders of seven Arab American, Muslim and Sikh groups.
At the meeting, Mueller announced plans for every FBI field office in the nation to begin a dialogue with these communities before war breaks out with Iraq. Sikhs, who are neither Arab nor Muslim, were also invited to the meeting because Sikh men wear turbans and are mistaken for Muslims by extremists.
Mueller said protecting civil rights is a high priority, and he encouraged the Middle Eastern communities to work with the FBI in reporting hate crimes and assisting terrorism investigations. Meetings between Arab American groups and the FBI have not been uncommon since the 2001 attacks. But San Diego attorney Randy Hamud, who has represented more than a dozen Muslims arrested or detained by the FBI or federal immigration officials, said previous meetings were usually requested by community leaders to complain about what they said was FBI insensitivity.
"This time they invited us. It was a different approach, and people were encouraged by that. Our meeting ended on a high note," said Hamud.
He was referring to a March 10 meeting in San Diego, where local FBI officials met with about a dozen community leaders. Attendees said FBI and local law enforcement officials promised to investigate hate crimes aggressively. In return, the leaders agreed to encourage their communities to cooperate with the FBI.
Another meeting is scheduled for Monday in Anaheim between local Arab American and Muslim leaders and FBI officials from Los Angeles and Santa Ana.
Both sides said establishing trust has been a slow and sometimes painful process.
"Prior to Sept. 11 there was a lot of misunderstanding on both sides. I think we've succeeded in clearing up these clouds of misunderstanding," said Ron Iden, assistant director of the FBI's Los Angeles division. He requires agents to attend seminars to learn "about the cultural differences that we need to understand to do our jobs."
Arab American leaders welcomed the FBI's offer to work together, but some still have sharp differences with the agency as it continues to knock on doors of Muslim families. Critics are still fuming over what they say is the FBI's practice of racial profiling.
Salam Almarayati, spokesman for the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, said his organization has been willing to work with the FBI, but members remain angry at "the FBI's policy of targeting people because of their race and religion."
"That's what they've been doing since the attacks, and we don't know of any case that has resulted in the arrest, indictment or prosecution of a terrorist," he said.
FBI officials have denied charges of racial profiling.
Almarayati and other leaders also question the constitutionality of the Patriot Act -- which gives the government and Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft broad powers to investigate and prosecute acts of terrorism.
"But we cannot obstruct the law. We'll continue to cooperate with the FBI because our concern as American citizens is the same as anybody else's. We want our country to be safe," Almarayati said.
Overall, Arab American leaders credit the FBI for its efforts.