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As Rep. Peter King gets ready to open hearings Thursday on Muslim radicals in the U.S., the New York lawmaker is facing questions about his own past as an unapologetic supporter of the anti-British Irish Republican Army.
From his days as the elected Nassau County comptroller in the early 1980s, King has spoken out for the IRA, a nationalist group that waged a bloody bomb-and-bullet campaign for three decades in an effort to drive the British out of Northern Ireland. To King and other supporters, the IRA volunteers were freedom fighters. But to others, including many Irish Americans, the Provisionals (as the main IRA group was known) were terrorists.
In 1982, the New York Republican told a pro-IRA rally on Long Island, "We must pledge ourselves to support those brave men and women who this very moment are carrying forth the struggle against British imperialism in the streets of Belfast and Derry," according to an extensive account in the New York Times that traced King's IRA ties. A few years later, King said, "If civilians are killed in an attack on a military installation, it is certainly regrettable, but I will not morally blame the IRA for it."
The IRA, which emerged in 1916 as the Irish Republican Brotherhood, did attack British military installations and soldiers, but also Protestant paramilitary members, Northern Irish police (the Royal Ulster Constabulary) and sometimes pubs and shops. In the 1980s, the IRA bought weapons from Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.
Yet King is also credited with playing a role in peace talks that brought together members of Sinn Fein -- the IRA's political wing -- Protestant political leaders, British government officials and representatives of the independent Republic of Ireland. King told CNN he helped bring peace about in the six counties in the north of Ireland. "This isn't me saying it, it's Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, among others." He even has a signed photo of former British Prime Minister Blair on his office wall.
King, 66, still insists the rebel army was a "legitimate force" in a "dirty war on both sides." Although the IRA Provisional command gave up its arsenal in the aftermath of the 1998 Good Friday Accord, one or two IRA splinter groups are still in existence.
King, son of a New York City police officer and grand-nephew of an IRA member, was profoundly affected by the 9/11 attacks on his hometown, New York City, and rejects any comparisons between the IRA and al-Qaeda. "I understand why people who are misinformed might see a parallel," he told the Times. "The fact is, the IRA never attacked the United States. And my loyalty is to the United States."
As the Homeland Security Committee he chairs opens hearings Thursday examining reports of radicalization in the American Muslim community, King has received a flurry of threats, including worrisome phone calls from abroad, according to The Hill. Extra security will be on hand at the hearing, although King said he had not requested it.
He has claimed that 85 percent of the leaders of American mosques have extremist views and that Muslims often do not cooperate with law enforcement. Critics of the hearings fear that they will spread blame for the acts of a few to the wider, law-abiding Muslim community. First-day witnesses include Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who is Muslim, and Zuhdi Jasser, a Muslim physician and activist.
"This hearing is not focusing on the acts of a criminal fringe, but is broad-brushing an entire community," Muslim Public Affairs Council analyst Alejandro J. Beutel said to the Times.
Folo Tom Diemer on Twitter http://twitter.com/tomdiemer
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