FBI Calls On Iraqis for Help

Times Staff Writers

Abbas Naama's phone rang Thursday morning. On the line: the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

By early afternoon, the former colonel in the Iraqi army had welcomed three agents into his Chula Vista home.

"They talked mostly about the future of Iraq after Saddam," said Naama, 52, who fled Iraq after taking part in a failed rebellion in 1992 that left three of his brothers dead. Naama said the agents were particularly interested in the experiences he and his wife had in the uprising and their views of how people in southern Iraq might react now.

"I gave all the information I had," said Naama, who said he also discussed his opinions of some opposition leaders in his homeland.

In Anaheim Hills, a 49-year-old medical physicist from Iraq spent 30 minutes speaking to FBI agents in a visit to his home that he described as courteous and friendly. The man, who has lived in the U.S. for about 20 years and requested anonymity, was asked if he knew anyone who would be harmful to the United States.

The agents expressed concern for his safety, asking if he had been harassed by anyone recently.

Then, he said, they started casually chatting about everything from his schooling in Baghdad to the practices of his ancient Assyrian Christian church.

The visit, he said, was no surprise.

"I was expecting them to come, since I knew they were contacting the Iraqi community," he said. "I just wondered why it took them so long."

The last time the United States went to war against Iraq, federal agents found considerable help in Southern California's Iraqi community, FBI agents said.

Four former colonels from the Iraqi army living in the Los Angeles area at the time were able to describe targets in their home country. Eventually, they were taken to the Pentagon to help plot bomb strikes, according to one agent.

Last week, in a meeting with Middle Eastern community leaders in San Diego, FBI officials shared that story of previous success, emphasizing that lives had been saved as a result of the men's assistance.

Iraqi community leaders are urging cooperation. Federal officials expect that they will make contact with as many as 11,000 Iraqi immigrants. Many Iraqis in Southern California are exiles from Hussein's regime and eager to see him overthrown.

"It's good the FBI will be relying on us, and if you have any information, give it," the Rev. Michael Bazzi, pastor of St. Peter's Chaldean Catholic Cathedral in El Cajon told his congregants in a sermon. "That's our job, being Americans."

At the same time they were seeking interviews with Iraqis, teams of federal agents on Thursday apprehended several dozen Iraqis nationwide who are in the United States illegally, officials said.

The joint operation involving the FBI and U.S. immigration authorities "is aimed at taking individuals off the street who might pose a threat to the safety and security of the American people," according to a statement from the Department of Homeland Security, which has absorbed much of the nation's immigration law enforcement responsibility.

Those targeted were identified "using a range of intelligence criteria," the statement said.

So far, officials said, they have made no arrests in Los Angeles or San Diego, home to two of the nation's largest populations of Iraqis. Local officials emphasized that they did not want to do anything to damage the relationship developed with the Iraqi community.

"Our focus is to get information, not to make arrests," said San Diego FBI Agent Jan Caldwell.

Interviews with Iraqi nationals whose relatives are still in Iraq have helped the Pentagon identify potential military targets for the current war, one FBI official said Thursday.

"They did this at great risk.... We don't want to expose them any more" by providing specifics, the official said.

FBI officials estimate that the Iraqi population in San Diego, the region's largest, includes several hundred recent arrivals, a significant number of whom served in the military.

Among Iraqis, tensions are high, with much anxiety about relatives still back home and worries about anti-Muslim backlash and potential immigration problems.

One woman, who said she was too frightened for family members left behind to allow her name or hometown to be printed, described her final days in a northern Iraq city.

Before she left to join her husband in San Diego last month, schools and offices had been closed. People had been told by government officials to leave their doors open at all times. Handguns and Kalashnikov rifles were distributed to members of the ruling Baath party. On each block, she said, a man was designated to teach anyone capable of defending himself to fight.

"They're waiting inside the city.... That's why they want the houses open," explained her husband, Alan Zangana, who said the Iraqi army intends to fight Americans in the streets.

That type of specific information is what the federal agents are looking for, said Michael Mason, who heads Sacramento's FBI field office. Mason said his agents would focus on interviewing Iraqis who have recently entered the country because their information would logically be the most current.

"For example, people with family still in Iraq may know about efforts by the Iraqi regime to turn certain neighborhoods into traps for U.S. troops," he said.

Mason said he expected to contact about 20 people in Sacramento and no more than 150 in Bakersfield.

Critics of government policy said the decision to go ahead with arrests of some Iraqis while trying to interview others would inevitably cause problems.

"It's basically a way of scaring the Iraqi people here," said Ban Al-Wardi, president of the Los Angeles-Orange County chapter of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "They're basically now equating these immigrants with criminals, terrorists. In fact, many are refugees who escaped Iraq because of persecution there."

But federal authorities were unapologetic.

"We are a nation at war, and we need to do everything -- use the tools at our disposal -- to ensure the safety and security of the nation and the American people," said Virginia Kice, a spokesman with the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "That's the bottom line."


Times staff writers Megan Garvey, Patrick McDonnell and Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report.

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