x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Evidence suggests slain Iraqi woman victim of hate crime

Shaima Alawadi's daughter says her mother had been beaten with a tyre iron. A police spokesman in California says they did not know what kind of weapon was used.

NEW YORK // While investigators have yet to describe the killing of Shaima Alawadi in California a hate crime, the Iraqi woman's family and other Arab-Americans have no doubt that racism and fear-mongering were behind the murder of the Shiite cleric's daughter.

Alawadi, the 32-year-old mother of five, fled to the United States as a teenager to escape persecution in Iraq. This week her body will be flown back to her country of birth for burial.

Alawadi's 17-year-old daughter found her mother's body on Wednesday morning in the family's dining room. She died from severe head injuries.

The daughter, Fatima Al Himidi, told a local news channel in El Cajon that her mother, who wore the hijab, had been beaten with a tyre iron. A police spokesman, however, said they did not know what kind of weapon was used.

Alawadi's husband, Kassim Alhimidi, had reportedly been dropping off the couple's younger children at school.

Left near the body was a "threatening" note, according to the El Cajon police department, though police would not disclose its contents. Ms Al Himidi said the note read, "Go back to your country, you terrorist".

Ms Al Himidi told the news channel that a similarly threatening note had recently been left at the family home but that they had not reported it to police.

"A week ago they left a letter saying, 'This is our country, not yours, you terrorists,'" she said on Saturday. "So my mom ignored that, thinking [it was] kids ... pranking. And so the day they hurt her, they left it again and it said the same thing."

The El Cajon police chief, James Redmond, said on Monday that the note led officials to suspect the murder was a hate crime but there was other evidence police were examining. He said he was confident the killing was an isolated incident and not part of a broader pattern.

"If you focus on one issue you get tunnel vision, and we want to make sure we are looking at it with an open mind," the El Cajon police spokesman Lt Mark Coit said.

The FBI is assisting local police, said Darrell Foxworth, an FBI spokesman, but added that federal authorities would not open an investigation unless a hate crime was determined.

There had been a 30 per cent increase in hate crimes in San Diego County, where El Cajon is located, between 2009 and 2010, according to Oscar Garcia, a district attorney in the county's hate crimes unit.

The killing sparked outrage on Twitter and Facebook, with many comparing the incident to the killing of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager shot to death one month ago in Florida. One Facebook group had organised a "Hoodies and Hijabs" march in Oakland, California for Tuesday night - a reference to the hooded sweatshirt Martin wore at the time of his shooting. #RIPShaima was the fastest trending topic on Twitter on Saturday.

Iraqi officials called for a full investigation while a US State Department spokeswoman said the US "has no tolerance for wanton acts of violence like this".

An estimated 40,000 Iraqi immigrants live in or near El Cajon .

At the Main Street Meat Market, a halal butcher and grocery store near the Alawadis' home, Laith Al Rueay, 29, recalled Mrs Alawadi as a customer.

"She was nice woman from a very good family, and she didn't have problems with anybody," said Mr Al Ruey, adding that while he has not experienced persecution since moving to the community from Baghdad four years ago, many people in the community are now on edge

"We came from a dangerous place to a clean community, with freedom and democracy, but this is the same, just like Iraq," Mr Al Rueay said. "The Iraqi Muslim women here are very frightened about this."

Hanif Mohebi, the executive director of the San Diego chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said it was important not to jump to conclusions.

"If this is a hate crime, we will take it very seriously," he said. "It is absolutely devastating for the family and the community, so we need to move very, very cautiously. Emotions are high, but we need to make sure we let the professionals do what they need to do."

Alawadi was born in Iraq, the daughter of Sayed Nabeel Alawadi, a Shiite cleric. She fled to Dearborn, Michigan along with thousands of other Iraqi Shiites after Saddam Hussein suppressed a revolt in southern Iraq, Hayder Al Zayadi, a family friend, told the Detroit Free Press.

Alawadi, who became a US citizen, moved to the San Diego area in 1996, where she graduated from high school and married.

Mr Al Zayadi also told the newspaper that Alawadi's brothers worked for the US army as cultural advisers who help train soldiers before their deployment to the Middle East. Another family friend told the U-T San Diego newspaper that her husband had a similar job.

A memorial service was held yesterday at the Imam Ali mosque. Iraqi officials announced that the government would pay for the body to be flown back to the country.