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Nation's terror alert elevated back to orange

©Associated Press
March 18, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Worried that war in Iraq could lead to terrorist reprisals at home, the Department of Homeland Security raised the terror alert one level to orange, or "high," Monday night and called for an increase in security measures nationwide.

Calling the effort "Operation Liberty Shield," the department deployed extra Border Patrol officers, stepped up patrols at seaports, airports and nuclear power plants and safeguards over the nation's food supply, officials said.

Separately, the FBI acknowledged increasing surveillance on Iraqis and others in connection with the attacks.

The department also called on governors to deploy National Guard troops or extra state police to protect key public facilities.

Orange, second highest on the five level, color-coded terror alert system, means intelligence and analysis suggests that a high risk of terrorist attacks inside the United States exists. Yellow, a step below, means an "elevated" level of risk. It has been about 21/2 weeks since the last orange alert ended and reverted to yellow.

The heightened alert took effect immediately after President Bush declared in a nationally televised address that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein must leave Iraq within 48 hours or military action would be mounted to oust him.

Counterterrorism officials said the threat comes from several quarters, including the al-Qaida network, Iraqi operatives or independent, freelance terrorists.

"While al-Qaida remains the principal concern, we are also concerned Iraqi state agents, Iraqi surrogate groups or ad hoc groups or disgruntled individuals might choose to use the time period as well to launch attacks against the United States or against our coalition partners," said Homeland Security spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

Several officials said the security increase was not related to a specific body of intelligence, but a general belief that terrorists may try to respond to the U.S.-led war on Iraq by striking at American interests, either at home or overseas.

The move marked the third time the administration has raised the terror alert status since the system was put in place about a year ago. It is the first time the level was raised by Homeland Security, which took over the color system from the Justice Department on March 1.

In addition, the FBI is closely watching dozens of Iraqis and others living in the United States under a wide-ranging security plan meant to deter any reprisals for a U.S. invasion, bureau officials said. The plan, a year in the making, is expected to divert several thousand FBI agents away from regular duties to focus solely on counterterror and security.

Some of those under the FBI's watch have been identified through ongoing interviews of up to 50,000 Iraqis. Others are suspected of having links to al-Qaida and other terror groups, possibly including the Hamas and Hezbollah organizations blamed for attacks in Israel.

The interviews with Iraqis are "designed to obtain any information that could be of use to the United States during a possible conflict," Jeffrey Lampinski, special agent in charge of the FBI's Philadelphia field office, said Monday.

At the same time, the FBI sought to assure Muslims and Arab-Americans it will respond quickly to any reports of hate crimes.

Some Muslims and Arabs fear war might result in harassment or deportation. One group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, e-mailed a "community safety kit" to mosques, community centers and others Monday that describes steps people can take to deal with backlash from a U.S.-Iraqi war and urging cooperation with police.

"All of us are going to be suspects," said Sarah Eltantawi, spokeswoman for the Muslim Public Affairs Council. "There is just this profound sense of disappointment about what America is becoming."

FBI spokesman Mike Kortan called the plan a prudent approach to give the country the best protection possible.

U.S. counterterrorism officials say the al-Qaida network may use the fighting as an opportunity to strike, although the most specific information points to possible attacks on U.S. forces in the Middle East. A recent statement from Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born leader of al-Qaida, declared some solidarity with Iraqis, although he referred to Hussein's government as infidels.

Officials say they have no credible information al-Qaida is close to launching a strike inside the United States.

In addition, operatives working for Iraq's Mukhabarat, Hussein's intelligence service, could attempt bombings or other traditional terrorist-style attacks. Many are thought to work out of Iraqi embassies around the world under diplomatic cover.

The State Department recently sought the expulsion of some 300 suspected operatives from more than 60 countries, but many have not been removed.

The color-coded alert system has five levels -- green, blue, yellow, orange and red.

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