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EL CAJON, Calif (Reuters) - The murder of an Iraqi-American mother in a close-knit refugee community on the outskirts of San Diego has brought attention to a rise in bias crimes against Muslims, even as police caution against definitively labeling her death a hate crime.
Shaima Alawadi, a 32-year-old stay-at-home mother of five, was found brutally beaten in the dining room of her rented home last week by her 17-year-old daughter, police said. She died of her wounds on Saturday.
Local police are investigating the killing as a possible hate crime because of a note found next to Alawadi's unconscious body that threatened the family and was reported to have labeled her a terrorist. An FBI bias crimes squad is assisting.
Alawadi's death comes at a time of renewed anti-Muslim sentiment nationwide. The number of anti-Muslim hate groups tripled to 30 in 2011, according to a recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which advocates for civil rights.
There was a big jump in hate crimes against Muslims after the September 11, 2001 attacks carried out by Al-Qaeda, but the number subsided during the middle of the decade of the 2000s.
Bias crimes are on the rise again, reaching 186 separate offenses in 2010, the highest in five years, the FBI data show.
"We are considering the hate crime aspect, but we are not labeling it as such," El Cajon Police Lieutenant Mark Coit said. But he could not reveal any details on the status of the case.
In a sign of how closely the case was being watched, the U.S. State Department expressed condolences for Alawadi's death, and Iraqi government representatives attended the funeral.
Both law enforcement and Arab and Muslim lobby groups, have stopped short of ruling out other scenarios, and even Alawadi's family was uncertain of what happened.
"The majority of the family believes that it could be anything," said Nazanin Wahid, a friend who is serving as a spokeswoman for the family. "But the fact that they found a note and that the police said initially that it resonates like a hate crime led them to believe that it could be that."
Community activists point to a history of violence and intimidation toward the local Muslim community, even as they say they cannot recall ever such a severe crime.
"Maybe this wasn't a hate crime. But I have cases that are hate crimes," said Besma Coda, Culture Adviser for Chaldean-Middle Eastern Social Services in El Cajon.
Some of Coda's clients have suffered broken bones and beatings in recent years, she said. One client had to get 10 stitches in his head because of a hate-motivated beating.
Since Alawadi's death, at least two members of El Cajon's Muslim community have reported receiving threatening phone calls, said Sadaf Hane, civil rights director of the San Diego chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The Arab community in particular is prone to under-reporting such discrimination because of a distrust of the abuses of authorities, Hane added.
El Cajon is in the heart of East San Diego County, which is home to the second largest Iraqi community in the United States, behind Detroit. More than half of El Cajon's 100,000 residents are of Middle Eastern descent.
Like Alawadi's family, some of the city's Arab residents are largely Shi'ite refugees from Iraq who arrived in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s after fleeing their homeland in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein's 1980 invasion of Shi'ite neighbor Iran and the long war that followed.
But the town has seen an even larger surge of Iraqi newcomers since 2008 through a U.S.-funded refugee resettlement program, often joining relatives in the area, said Michael McKay, Deputy Director of Refugee Services at the Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego.
A friend of Alawadi's family, Sura Alzaidy, told the San Diego Union Tribune newspaper the note found near Alawadi read: "Go back to your own country. You're a terrorist."
Alawadi and her husband arrived in the United States in 1993 after spending years in a refugee tent camp next to Majed al Hasan, who later became their neighbor in El Cajon.
The Iraq they fled was terrifying, with secret police torturing and killing perceived enemies of the state, Hasan said. Alawadi, Hasan, and thousands of other Iraqis were eventually granted asylum in the United States, where they mostly settled in the San Diego and Detroit communities.
"They come from a war-torn country," McKay said. "To think that you're not safe, still, after coming this far is scary."
On one recent night, hundreds of mourners stood in front of Alawadi's house in a quiet cul-de-sac nestled in the hills as the sun set, lighting candles for a vigil in her honor.
The crowd quietly murmured about the case until Alawadi's mother arrived and her cries of sorrow pierced the air, silencing those gathered before wails erupted around her as she walked through the crowd, sobbing and beating her chest.
Some mourners wore the traditional black cloak and scarf worn by many devout Muslim women. Others wore T-shirts that said "Justice for Shaima Alawadi" above a silhouette of a woman wearing a Muslim headscarf.
Alawadi wore such a headscarf, and advocates for the Arab and Muslim community have suggested that her scarf may have been a factor in drawing attention to her as a perceived outsider, if indeed her killing was a hate crime.
"We're not going to cry, if that's what you wanted. We're not going to take off our scarf, if that's what you wanted," Alawadi's eldest daughter, Fatima, said at the vigil, addressing her mother's killer.
Alawadi was buried in the holy Shi'ite city of Najaf, roughly 100 miles south of Iraq's capital Baghdad, on Saturday.
For many in El Cajon, the case has drawn parallels to that of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager shot in Florida last month by a Neighborhood Watch volunteer in a killing that has also drawn outrage because of its racial undertones.
"My condolences go out to the family of Trayvon," Alawadi's 15-year-old son Muhammed said at the vigil, as tears welled up in his eyes. "My candle goes out to you as well."
Some activists have begun linking the two cases on social media, spurring a popular #hoodiesandhijabs hashtag on Twitter. Martin was wearing a hoodie when he was killed.
Students at several college campuses from the University of North Carolina-Asheville to the University of Southern California held "Hoodies and Hijabs" rallies on Thursday.
The two cases, despite their differences, highlight broader questions of discrimination against black and Muslim communities in America, said Abdulrahman El-Sayed, a fellow at think tank Demos and an epidemiologist at Columbia University.
As darkness fell in El Cajon at the recent vigil, mourners raised their candles in the air and chanted "We want justice."
Editing by Dan Whitcomb, Cynthia Johnston and Greg McCune