By CURT ANDERSON
.c The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) - The government dropped Armenians from a list of men required to register with an anti-terrorism program after Armenian lobbying groups mounted a furious campaign.
``It was a mistake and we're glad it was corrected,'' Bryan Ardouny, executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America, said Thursday.
Government officials denied that political pressure was behind the switch, saying it was the result of a routine review.
Armenian groups rallied last week after the Federal Register - the official record of government regulations - stated that males age 16 and up from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Armenia would join a list of men from 18 other countries considered at risk for terrorism.
Such men are required to visit local Immigration and Naturalization Service offices to be photographed, fingerprinted and show certain documents.
By late Monday, the government reversed course on Armenia, issuing a statement that only Saudis and Pakistanis would have to register by Feb. 21.
The Armenian Assembly and other groups had contacted the White House, members of Congress and other government officials urging a change.
The United States is home to about 1.5 million people from Armenia, a largely Christian country without a terrorist history, and that has a tense relationship with neighboring Azerbaijan, a predominantly Muslim country.
Armenian officials said they were mystified as to why they were even considered for the anti-terror list.
A Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the change was made after a federal interagency group, reviewing terrorist threat assessments and intelligence, determined that Armenians need not be included in the registration program. The official denied that political pressure was the reason.
Publication of the notice Monday - minus Armenia - came on the registration deadline for men from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan and Syria. These countries are all considered by the United States to be state sponsors of terrorism.
More than 220 men, most of Iranian origin, were detained in Los Angeles when they went to register. The large Iranian population in Los Angeles was outraged, with thousands staging a protest Wednesday against what they considered unfair arrests of innocent people.
Justice Department officials said the majority of those detained had overstayed their visas and that, by midday Thursday, all but about 100 had been released after it became clear they posed no threat. Most will get a chance to make their case before the INS as to whether they can stay in the United States.
The overall registration program, officials said, has photographed and fingerprinted 40,000 people from 135 countries, with another 233 turned away at the U.S. border.
Men from Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen face a registration deadline of Jan. 10.
Those who fail to register can be deported. The program does not affect permanent residents, men with INS ``green cards,'' or to naturalized citizens from those countries. Diplomats also are excluded, as well as those seeking or already granted political asylum in the United States.
Women and children were excluded because their numbers would have made the program impossible to administer, Justice Department officials say.
On the Net: Justice Department: http://www.usdoj.gov
12/19/02 17:45 EST