Posted by Tiglath from 159.c.002.mel.iprimus.net.au (188.8.131.52) on Monday, December 23, 2002 at 10:36AM :
Kelly Ettenborough and Billy House
The Arizona Republic
Dec. 21, 2002 12:00 AM
The Iraqi refugees living in the Valley left their home country because they opposed Saddam Hussein, not so they could earn money to fund terrorism, they said Friday.
They have sent money to relatives in Iraq, in spite of sanctions forbidding aid, because life is particularly difficult for the families of dissidents. But with the arrest of a friend and community member Thursday, they are worried.
Ali Almarhoun, 38, of Phoenix was indicted on money-laundering charges along with 11 others tied to a Seattle-area company.
"We will leave them starving to death because we don't want to be in trouble," said Jabir Algarawi, an American citizen and executive director of the Arizona Refugee Community Center in Phoenix.
Wanted to help refugees
He's also a good friend of Almarhoun, a father of four who wanted to help the refugees, Algarawi said. The company charged a 5 percent fee to send the money, but Almarhoun did not receive money for his referrals, Algarawi said.
The indictment lists $347,570 collected through Almarhoun. That is likely a portion of what he collected in the Valley, said Leigh Winchell, special agent in charge of the U.S. Customs Service Office of Investigations in Seattle. Winchell could not provide details on the time frame or the number of people who had given Almarhoun money. The federal grand jury indictment alleges Alshafei Family Connect sent more than $12 million to Iraq through banks in several countries, including Jordan, India, Brazil and Egypt. The company collected $28 million.
But, he added, no evidence substantiates that Iraqi expatriates living in the Phoenix area gave Almarhoun money for any other reason than to help their families. That is illegal, but at this point, federal agents are not seeking to prosecute those who did so, he said.
No allegations have been made tracing the money directly to terrorists, Winchell said, but it's a national security concern nonetheless. Nor did the money appear to directly benefit any individual, he said.
The money becomes susceptible to "any number of criminal or counter-American activities" and "certainly not where the Iraqi expatriate in Phoenix thinks his money is going to," he said.
Almarhoun is being held in a Phoenix jail until his hearing Monday in federal court.
The hearing will verify that Almarhoun is the person named in the warrant and seek to send him to Seattle for prosecution, said Terri Tollefson, group supervisor for the Phoenix customs office.
Almarhoun's arrest has worried many Valley refugees, some of whom had already stopped sending money to families because it has become more difficult.
"They think the FBI will come and take all 3,000 refugees," Algarawi said. "They think we are Iraqis who support Saddam Hussein. We did our best to get rid of him. They think we are here to spy. We are proud to be American citizens."
Typically, refugees would send money through Almarhoun or to a friend or relative in a neighboring country to send on to their family.
Annette McKeon, a family friend, said Almarhoun was arrested and taken away in front of his wife, who doesn't speak English and didn't know what was happening.
"I read the indictment to the brothers and the cousins, and they explained it to her and she ran out of the room in tears," said McKeon, a Glendale resident.
The family thought the company was legitimate because it could wire money overseas, she said. They came here after Desert Storm.
Refugee population: 11,000
About 3,000 Iraqi Muslim refugees live in the Valley along with about 8,000 Assyrian-Americans - Iraqis with Christian backgrounds who immigrated here.
At St. Peter Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church in Phoenix, the church members donate money for Iraq through the Assyrian Aid Society, an agency recognized by the United Nations, said Sam Darmo, a Phoenix Realtor and member of the Assyrian Democratic Movement that opposes Hussein. They support President Bush's Iraq policies.
"We blame Saddam Hussein for the sanctions," Darmo said. "It was up to him to choose between the Iraqi children who are dying and the mass-destruction weapons program, and he chose the mass-destruction weapons program over saving the children."
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