EL CAJON, Calif. — Shaima Alawadi and her family fled Iraq nearly two decades ago as Saddam Hussein crushed a Shiite uprising, settling in the U.S. so they would no longer face persecution, a family friend said.
Alawadi grew up in the country's largest Iraqi enclaves, wore the Muslim headscarf and volunteered at the mosque.
Now, after her body was found severely beaten in her suburban San Diego home, police, the FBI and members of the Iraqi community are wondering whether her death was a hate crime or something else.
Among the evidence that police have collected is a threatening note that was near Alawadi's body. Her daughter told a television station that it said: "Go back to your country, you terrorist."
El Cajon Police Chief James Redman declined to discuss the contents of the note Monday, though he said that it has led police to regard the killing as a possible hate crime.
"I want to stress there is other evidence in this case that we are looking at and the possibility this is a hate crime is just one aspect," Redman said, adding that they have not drawn any conclusions.
"We don't have tunnel vision on this case," he said. "We're looking at the big picture."
Redman said he was confident it was an isolated incident but would not say why.
The death rippled across the world, with Alawadi's name being mentioned on Twitter and the case being discussed in Iraqi communities in the San Diego and Detroit suburbs. Lawmakers in Baghdad called for a full investigation.
Her slaying was being compared to that of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teen shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer, said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
"Trayvon was black wearing a hoodie. Shaima was wearing a hijab," Walid said. "It's the same racist principle at play that killed both of these individuals."
Others were more guarded.
"We don't want to jump to any conclusions and say it's a hate crime when there is still a lot of investigation to be done," said Edgar Hopida, spokesman for CAIR in San Diego.
The chief said Alawadi died of severe head trauma. She was taken off life support Saturday, three days after her teenage daughter found her unconscious in the dining room of the family's El Cajon home, east of San Diego.
The victim's daughter, Fatima Al Himidi, told KUSI-TV in San Diego that her mother had been beaten on the head repeatedly with a tire iron, and the threatening note was next to her. Police would not confirm the type of weapon used in the attack.
Police said the family found another threatening note within the last month but did not report it to authorities. Hanif Mohebi, executive director of CAIR's San Diego chapter, said family members told him they dismissed the initial note as a prank.
The victim and her family fled Iraq in the early 1990s after a failed Shiite uprising, living in Saudi Arabian refugee camps before coming to the U.S., said Imam Husham Al-Husainy of the Karbalaa Islamic Education Center in Dearborn, Mich.
Saddam's troops hanged Alawadi's uncle.
"She lost her uncle by Saddam," he said, "and when they came here to seek freedom, she got killed."
The family arrived in the Detroit area in 1993 and later moved to San Diego. Shaima Alawadi was a religious Shiite Muslim who wore a hijab, the Islamic headscarf, and volunteered at a mosque, Al-Husainy said.
Alawadi's father, Sayed Nabeel Alawadi, is a cleric in Iraq, said Al-Husainy, who described himself as a close family friend.
Hayder Al-Zayadi, a family friend, told the Detroit Free Press that Alawadi's brothers worked for the U.S. Army, serving as cultural advisers to train soldiers who were going to be deployed to the Middle East.
Another family friend told U-T San Diego that Alawadi's husband had a similar job. Redman said Alawadi's husband was currently on disability and didn't know his previous employment.
Flowers were set on the doorstep of the home Monday. One of the glass panels on a sliding back patio door was boarded up with wood. The backyard overlooks a middle school.
Alvin Luckenbach, who lives next door, exchanged pleasantries with Alawadi and her husband. He said she recently apologized for her kids making noise playing basketball on Alawadi's back patio.
"They were always nice," Luckenbach said.
The Iraqi foreign minister said Monday that Alawadi's body will be flown to Iraq.
The FBI, which is assisting El Cajon police in the investigation, defines a hate crime as an offense motivated by a bias against race, religion, ethnicity, disability or sexual orientation. There were 1,409 hate crimes nationwide based on religion during 2010, including 186 targeting Muslims. There were 1,040 based on ethnicity or national origin, including 359 targeting groups other than Hispanics.
Associated Press writer Lara Jakes, Sameer N. Yacoub and Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad and Jeff Karoub in Detroit contributed to this report.