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US securing Iraq - but what about homeland?

It's hard to argue with the success of the war in Iraq on most fronts. After a brief pause, the US ground troops on the southern front have now reached Baghdad. On the northern front, the inability to use Turkey as a staging ground may have slowed the effort, but reports indicate steady movement toward the Iraqi capital.

It is the third front in the war that's puzzling, however - the one that sits south of Canada between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. As things roll along in the Persian Gulf, some of the headlines concerning homeland security have been the most vexing.

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Shortly before the war got under way, the FBI announced it was seeking voluntary interviews with 11,000 Iraqis living in the US.

Immediately, cries of protest went up from Arab-American groups who claimed the move was racial profiling, with some even drawing para-llels to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The FBI responded that because the interviews were voluntary, they weren't violating anyone's civil rights.

Of course, the word "voluntary" may suddenly take on a different meaning when the FBI is knocking at your door. But the civil rights discussion, while important, masks another important point.

The sheer number is the most amazing. After more than a year of planning to possibly go to war with Iraq - watching and listening and homeland-securitizing - the government decided its best course of action was to essentially ask the equivalent of a small town to come in for a talk. For the record, these interviews turned up a "handful" of arrests and detentions.

The government may have a 21st- century security apparatus designed to help "to disrupt, and to punish terrorists before they strike," as the president said when he signed the Patriot Act, but its tactics smack of Louis Renault in "Casablanca": "Round up the usual suspects."

That voluntary interview plan alone is enough to raise concern, but there are quieter actions that also raise questions. In mid-February, the federal government told employees of the Washington-based Iraq Foundation, a nonprofit group working for democracy and human rights in Iraq, that because of increased security, no one who worked there would be allowed in the same building as President Bush, except the group's head. The people who work for the Iraq Foundation weren't upset, they were puzzled. The foundation supports Bush administration efforts to remove Saddam Hussein from power, and some of its funding comes from the State Department. "No one was angry," one employee said. "We just all laughed when we heard it."

Even if you believe that the administration deserves the benefit of the doubt in these cases, there are troubling signs that homeland security may not be getting the attention it merits. In cities and states around the country, officials are saying they can't live up to the requirements the federal government has laid out for them.

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Los Angeles has heightened security around the city to the tune of $1 million extra a week, but, lacking the money to pay for the changes, it has had to turn to the state, which is also straining under a $30 billion deficit. The Boston Globe recently reported that the 10 largest police departments in Massachusetts have 424 fewer police officers than they did at this time last year due to tight budgets. And New York Gov. George Pataki, a Republican and friend of the president, has written the administration to say that New York City and state simply aren't getting the money they need to implement the homeland-security measures the feds would like to see.

There is likely to be some relief if security levels drop again after the shooting stops in Iraq, but for how long? Orange alerts came before the war in Iraq and they will come after. Even if one believes Iraq and Al Qaeda are linked (a weakly proven allegation at best), no one believes that the threat of terror will disappear after the war is over.

Yet, with terrorism still a major threat, the administration says it can't find the money to help pay for more homeland security even as it proposes another $750 billion in tax cuts. All of which raises a simple question, with things going well on the well-funded fronts in Iraq, what about the home front?


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