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Arab-Americans worry about retaliation

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Muslim- and Arab-American leaders condemned the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and pleaded with the American public not to take out its anger on their communities.

But with federal authorities focusing on exiled Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden as their prime suspect, vitriolic anti-Arab and anti-Muslim messages were spreading on the Internet, in threatening phone calls to groups in Washington, Los Angeles and San Jose and in insults shouted on a street in Chicago. In one Colorado town, a group of men allegedly threatened to burn down a mosque.

In an America Online chatroom, many used racial slurs against Arabs. The messages were written by people using online monikers, not their real names.

For decades, the Middle East has been a flashpoint for terrorist attacks and American interests have often been targeted. Examples include the bombings of the USS Cole last year and a Marine barracks in Lebanon in the 1980s.

But moderate Arab governments have often condemned the attacks.

The Web discussions, however, were just what Arab- and Muslim-American leaders said they feared as they pleaded for calm. Between 6 million and 7 million Americans consider themselves Muslim.

"Regardless of who is ultimately found to be responsible for these terrorist murders, no ethnic or religious community should be treated as suspect and collectively blamed," the Arab American Institute said in a statement.

The group's Washington office received at least a dozen phone calls from people saying the group would "pay for this" and telling them to "go home," said media director Jenny Salan.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles and the Islamic Networks Group in San Jose also reported calls with death threats, obscenities and racial slurs.

In Chicago, Mustafa Yassin of the Arab American Action Network said he and three others were closing the office when a middle-aged man drove by and threatened them. "He said, 'We're going to make sure you guys are going to get yours,"' Yassin said.

In Colorado, Farouk Abushaban, a spokesman for the Islamic Society of Colorado Springs, said a carpet layer was working at the city's only mosque Tuesday when "four guys came in and cursed at him." The men said they would return later and burn the mosque down, Abushaban said. The mosque's voice mail contained more threats, he said.

In New York, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said neighborhoods with large Arab-American populations would receive extra police protection to protect against backlash incidents.

Arab-American leaders said their community is as devastated by the attacks as the rest of the nation.

"We have friends and family who work in that building, the World Trade Center. We have family and friends that worked at the Pentagon," said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute. "While we would like to mourn like everybody else in America, we end up looking over our shoulder because someone is pointing a finger."

Fuad Sahouri, chairman of the Arab-American Business and Professional Association in Washington, said he hopes Arab-Americans will not suffer the same fate as 120,000 Japanese-Americans, who were forced from their homes by order of President Franklin Roosevelt after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

"We don't want to be excluded or insulated or treated how Japanese-Americans were treated," he said. "It's very important right now for Arab-Americans that their loyalty never be brought into question. We are Americans first."

On the Net:

Arab American Institute: www.aaiusa.org

Arab American Action Network: www.aaan.org