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Iraqis Held in Lancaster Deny Spying on U.S.

May 11, 1997|SHARON MOESER and ANN W. O'NEILL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LANCASTER — Two Iraqi refugees jailed in Lancaster denied in interviews Saturday that they are spies for Saddam Hussein, the man they claimed they helped the U.S. government try to overthrow.

They are among 25 jailed Iraqis who say the U.S. government lured them to this country with the promise of asylum after they assisted in a failed bid to oust Hussein last summer. Instead, they are being detained at three Southern California jails and face deportation as suspected spies or terrorists.

Eight men, all educated professionals who say they aided the Central Intelligence Agency in the secret operation, have been held at the mothballed Mira Loma county jail in Lancaster since late March. Their wives and children, meanwhile, recently were granted political asylum.

In interviews with two of the detainees at Mira Loma and with relatives in the San Fernando Valley, all denied posing any security threat to the U.S.

"My husband is not a threat to America," said the wife of detained journalist Hashim Qadir Hawlery, who is among the eight men at Mira Loma.

"He has nothing to do with Saddam Hussein," Shukria Khoshnaw continued from her home in Glendale. "When America needed us, my husband risked his life and he worked against Saddam. Now, he is being accused as Saddam's spy. I don't understand it."

Two of Hawlery's countrymen at Mira Loma--physicians Ali Yasim Mohammed Karim and Adil Hadi Awadh--also flatly denied that any of their group were Iraqi spies. They said they were among 6,500 refugees airlifted out of the region in three waves last fall, and that U.S. officials promised them refuge before they boarded U.S. military planes for Guam.

It was only after they landed on U.S. soil that the refugees learned there might be any question about receiving asylum, said attorney Niels W. Frenzen of the Public Counsel Law Center in Los Angeles, which represents seven of the Southern California detainees.

Justice Department and Clinton administration officials declined on Saturday to say what evidence the FBI and INS obtained against the Iraqis.

Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, reached at her office, declined to comment.

But lawyers for seven of the detainees suggested that their clients are victims of false accusations by fellow refugees with whom they are feuding over the direction of the opposition movement.

Karim said he began openly opposing the Hussein government in 1994 when he relocated to northern Iraq and began working for the Iraqi National Congress, an umbrella organization of numerous opposition groups. He and the others being held at Mira Loma all were high-ranking members of their opposition group, he added.

In his years with the INC, Karim said, he served as the doctor of the CIA employees working in Iraq to help oust Hussein. He also often worked as an interpreter for the CIA and is one of the few people, his lawyers say, who know how to treat thallium poisoning, a technique Hussein uses against his enemies.

Justice Department spokeswoman Carole Florman said the INS had "reasonable grounds" to suspect that 13 of the 25 Iraqis being held were "potential national security risks." A dozen others have been detained for a variety of other reasons.

What constitutes a threat to U.S. national security is broadly defined and open to interpretation, but it includes such concerns as allegiance to a hostile foreign power or suspicion of espionage, Florman said.

"There was at least sufficient grounds to determine that these people could represent this kind of a threat," Florman said.

"Some of them we brought here because they were found to be disruptive in the camp," Florman said without elaboration.

The men being held at Mira Loma include defectors from the Iraqi military, as well as engineers, the journalist and a commercial pilot. They are scheduled to appear in U.S. Immigration Court in San Pedro on May 21, Frenzen said.

In addition to Hawlery, Karim and Awadh, court records identified the five other men as Mohammed Jwer Al-Ammary, Ali Jahjoh Saleh, Mohammed Jose Qaisar, Mohammed Jassin Tuma and Safadim Abdulhassan Al-Batat.

A woman being held at the INS detention center in San Pedro was identified as Mehdia Jasim Alzubydy. Sixteen other refugees are being detained at the Lerdo INS detention center near Bakersfield, and their cases are pending before immigration officials in San Francisco.

All belonged to or were affiliated with the Iraqi National Congress or the Iraqi National Accord, another CIA-backed resistance group. They fled Iraq with their families after Hussein's military forces and secret police invaded their towns in the U.S.-protected no-fly zone.

The CIA's $100-million covert operation collapsed in disaster Aug. 31, according to Frenzen and court records.

Once in the U.S., the detainees have been unable to defend themselves against what they say are false allegations because government officials assert that the information, apparently gleaned from fellow detainees by the FBI, is classified, Frenzen said.

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