"It's not me who changed," said Alamiri, 40, a Philadelphia car salesman and former anti-Hussein activist. "But I'm glad the U.S. changed. . . . I knew the day would come when Saddam would be gone, and now that moment has started."
FBI agents and local police started questioning roughly 11,000 Iraqi immigrants nationwide and 200 in the Philadelphia area yesterday, replaying the kinds of sweeps mounted at times of crisis in the past.
The "voluntary interviews" are part of a domestic security campaign called Operation Liberty Shield, launched along with the U.S. invasion to guard against retribution attacks in the United States.
FBI officials insist the Iraqi immigrants are not suspected terrorists or immigration violators. Nor is the agency laying the groundwork for wide-scale detentions or internment, as happened to some people of Japanese, German and Italian descent during World War II, they said.
Instead, the government said it just wants to cull as much information as possible for its war effort and antiterrorism campaign. It has not said how it singled out the men for interviews, nor whether other Arabs also may be questioned.
Some civil rights and Arab American associations said the interviews smack of "ethnic profiling" and warned they could backfire.
"In the same breath that they are asking for assistance from Iraqi nationals in thwarting terrorism, the FBI is alienating people by treating them like suspects," said Dalia Hashad, an advocate for Arab, Muslim and South Asians at the Washington-based American Civil Liberties Union.
Confusing the situation, the Homeland Security Department said yesterday that FBI and immigration agents are also seeking out certain Iraqi nationals "who might pose a threat to the safety and security of the American people."
The Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement gave no other details about the Iraqi nationals, other than saying they "were identified using a range of intelligence criteria and all are in the country illegally."
Across the country, thousands of Iraqi natives began getting knocks on their doors yesterday morning. The Philadelphia Arab-American Association, having failed to block the interviews, had persuaded local FBI agents to present each interviewee with a bilingual letter bearing a lawyer's phone number and the person's rights.
It also won the Philadelphia FBI's pledge not to detain any illegal immigrant it encounters, despite an order this week by Attorney General John Ashcroft giving agents special power to do just that.
Five Iraqi natives in Philadelphia recounted benign conversations with FBI agents in which their greatest frustration, if any, appeared to be their inability to offer any truly helpful tips.
The interviewed people, all men, each said he was given the bilingual notice stating his rights. None said he was asked to show an ID card, or proof of immigration status or citizenship.
Mahdi Alshammere, 27, of Philadelphia, said two agents asked him about a neighbor, then left their card asking him to call them with any tips or concerns.
"They were super-nice," said Alshammere, who added that his brother is a U.S. Marine currently mobilized in Iraq. "I get harassed by the cops more than that."
All the men said they were asked whether they knew anybody who might either be a terrorist or a potential anti-Hussein informant here or inside Iraq.
"I told them there are four million Iraqis living outside Iraq, and most of them have never gone back, so how could they know about anybody with real information about anything like [Iraqi] weapons?" Alamiri said.
Agents also tried to reassure Iraqis that the government will not tolerate any hate crimes against them, often leaving business cards with direct cell phone numbers in case of emergency.
Like immigrants from other autocratic nations, Iraqis often are reflexively nervous when approached by an inquisitive government official.
"At least they leave business cards," said Raad Saleh, 50, a Philadelphia merchant who was contacted by an FBI agent looking for another man. "Over there, they don't give you card. They grab you and you're gone."
Contact staff writer Thomas Ginsberg at 215-854-4177 or email@example.com.