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Attack Fuels Protests, Warnings

Local and state officials urge calm and no anti-Muslim acts as authorities increase security. Protesters march in L.A. and S.F.

March 20, 2003|Jessica Garrison, Monte Morin and Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writers

On the day the United States went to war, federal agents in Southern California were questioning Iraqi immigrants, antiwar protesters blocked streets and officials warned against violence directed at Muslims.

The first strikes against Iraq brought reassurances from Gov. Gray Davis and Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn that the state and city faced no specific threats.

Law enforcement officials throughout California stepped up security measures in recent days, and little changed after President Bush told the nation the war had begun.

"I want everyone in Los Angeles to remain alert and vigilant," Hahn said Wednesday night from the city's Emergency Operations Center, located four stories below ground, under City Hall East. "On the other hand, we want you to know we are doing everything we can in the city of Los Angeles to make sure you are protected and you are safe."

Earlier this week, Davis directed California Highway Patrol troopers to work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, intensifying patrols around power plants, bridges, airports, harbors and other high-profile targets.

"We knew this day was coming; it was only a matter of when," said Steven Maviglio, the governor's press secretary. "When [President Bush] declared war, there was no switch that was flipped to accelerate our preparedness to another level. We were prepared and we are prepared."

Wednesday night, Los Angeles County's emergency center remained largely empty. Its 99 emergency consoles, each equipped with a high-speed computer, will be staffed only if the country is hit by a terrorist attack or other disaster. Staff members on hand watched three giant televisions tuned to CNN, CBS and NBC.

At Los Angeles International Airport, police set up vehicle checkpoints and officials closed an entrance on Sepulveda Boulevard.

Lines were long at the Tom Bradley International Terminal -- typical for a midweek -- and passengers were calm as they waited to board their planes. Throughout the terminal, the same words could be heard in conversations as people spoke on cell phones: Iraq, war, Bush.

In San Francisco, peace activists planned to shut down the city's Financial District this morning.

In Los Angeles and throughout Southern California, officials from public schools, museums and other institutions said they planned to conduct business as usual.

"Until we're notified otherwise by the city's emergency operations, our schools will stay open," said Los Angeles Unified School District spokeswoman Susan Cox.

The start of war came as the FBI conducted interviews with some of the thousands of Iraqi nationals -- hundreds from California -- they hoped would provide information to aid the military operation or prevent acts of terrorism in the United States.

The interviews were authorized under a recent Justice Department order. In San Diego, whose 25,000-member Iraqi community is one of the nation's largest, local leaders held a joint press conference with FBI officials Wednesday to allay concerns about the "large number" of interviews the government plans to conduct with Iraqi expatriates.

"What we are looking for is information that will help protect our troops," said acting Special Agent in Charge John R. Kingston, adding that officials are also hoping for help in locating weapons of mass destruction inside Iraq.

Support for Bush

Local representatives from Iraq's Kurdish, Muslim and Chaldean Catholic communities expressed support for Bush and a desire to see Iraqi President Saddam Hussein ousted.

Iman Mostafa Al-Qazwini, leader of the Islamic Educational Center in Costa Mesa, said Wednesday that he was aware of Iraqis in his congregation who were questioned by the FBI in recent days, including some who had become U.S. citizens.

The interviews, he said, have prompted mixed emotions. On the one hand, they are an opportunity to "build bridges of understanding and confidence."

But, after escaping Hussein's tyranny, Al-Qazwini said, "it is a bit ironic that one day, they travel thousands of miles away from Iraq to find some refuge, and they are approached here by the FBI agents to interrogate them."

On the streets of Los Angeles and San Francisco, protesters shouted "No war" and "Not in our name." Similar protests took place in other cities across the nation, including Washington, Detroit and Boston.

Tensions with police boiled over at times. At a rally in Westwood, the Los Angeles Police Department made at least 40 arrests.

In a confrontation between protesters and an LAPD officer taped by a local television station, the officer struck two women with his baton and pushed a man who tried to photograph his badge.

Chief William J. Bratton immediately ordered an investigation. LAPD spokesman Jason Lee said the department is not releasing the name of the officer because he is under investigation.

One of the women who was hit, Anna Christensen, 58, of Long Beach, said she was trying not to push up against a line of police officers when she was hit by the officer's baton.

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