WASHINGTON, March 17 (UPI) -- The U.S. government is relying on anti-Saddam Iraqis in the United States to help prevent domestic terror attacks in case of a war, a senior law enforcement official said Monday.
Far from being seen as a problem in the event of a war with Iraq, the tens of thousands of Iraqis in the United States generally are seen as an asset.
"Most of the people of Iraqi origin (in this country) are people who fled Saddam Hussein's Iraq ... We're seeking help from them," the law enforcement official said. "Not that we don't have some concern about some individuals from Iraq" who may be agents of the Iraqi regime.
Meanwhile, the FBI has completed thousands of voluntary interviews with exiled Iraqis in the United States, asking for their help in uncovering intelligence about possible domestic terrorism.
But the agency has thousands more interviews to go.
"These interviews have been going on for a few months," the official said. "They are mostly targeted at people who can help us" with intelligence.
A secondary purpose of the interviews is to alert Iraqi exiles, some of whom have become Americans, that the FBI will respond if they face race-based violence or discrimination.
The law enforcement official and other U.S. officials downplayed reports that the FBI is looking for thousands of illegal Iraqi aliens in the United States.
No one knows how many illegal Iraqi immigrants are in the country, and media accounts giving figures are just speculation, the officials said.
"There are (an estimated) 8 million illegal immigrants" in the United States, the law enforcement official said.
An FBI spokesman said Monday that the effort to interview Iraqis in this country is pretty much open-ended.
"It's an ongoing process," the spokesman said. "When you talk to somebody, you inevitably get: 'Well, you know who you should speak to?'" That leads to other interviews that weren't originally planned.
The spokesman also said it was a mistake to speak of thousands of FBI special agents being deployed in a counter-terrorism operation in the event of war with Iraq.
"The reality is that we already have a good portion of the FBI working counter-terrorism duties," the spokesman said, and those agents on counter-terrorism duty simply will be supplemented by agents from other details.
In fact, the FBI, with its 12,000 special agents, has been undergoing an evolution since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, changing from what was primarily a law enforcement agency to a domestic intelligence agency.
"The big change (in the event of war) is that we're going to man command posts around-the-clock," the FBI spokesman said.
The FBI first acknowledged the massive effort to interview Iraqis in this country in early February. At the time, an FBI official said published reports of 50,000 planned interviews were highly inflated.
The FBI official said the agents involved in the interviews had received "sensitivity training" to make sure they told their contacts that the interviews were strictly voluntary.
"We are also interested if they are facing any hostilities ... because of their ethnic backgrounds," the official said last month.