America bars Iraqi immigrant who played hijacker in September 11 film

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The Independent US

When Lewis Alsamari fled Iraq more than 10 years ago, he cannot have imagined that a terrorist atrocity would indirectly offer him the biggest break of his career.

Granted asylum in Britain, he took up acting and eventually landed a leading role in a film recreating the fate of Flight 93 on 11 September, 2001.

But when United 93 opens at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York next week, the 30-year-old Iraqi is unlikely to be walking the red carpet with his co-stars because of visa problems.

The Americans take a very stringent view of Iraqis entering the USA and Mr Alsamari has been told that he is unlikely to be granted a visa in time.

He said: "It would be so disappointing not to be able to go because I still have not seen the film. I have only seen footage and it would have been amazing to be in New York for the premiere."

While he claims his enforced time in the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein's regime is proving a barrier to travelling to the premiere, the US Embassy insisted yesterday the problem was merely one of timing. Applications from Iraqis go through Washington and, therefore, must be made well in advance. The festival opens on Tuesday.

Mr Alsamari, who was granted asylum in Britain in 1998, plays the lead hijacker in United 93 - the film that replays the terrible fate of the fourth plane. The passengers fought back against the hijackers as the plane headed towards the Capitol Building in Washington, but all perished when it crashed in rural Pennsylvania.

The actor said he was hoping the embassy would be able to expedite his application for a visa, adding: "I was born in Iraq but have lived in Britain since 1995 and am about to apply for British citizenship."

Mr Alsamari said that he escaped the Iraqi army under fire in 1993 and fled across the Jordanian border, where he remained for 18 months before coming to the UK. After living in Newcastle and Manchester, he settled in London and worked on his acting career, earning parts in the television shows Spooks and Crossroads.

Eventually he was awarded a starring role in British director Paul Greengrass's film about the al'Qa'ida-led plane hijackings.

He has previously been allowed into New York during location filming but he explained - unlike his fellow actors - he was only granted a single entry visa.

He said: "I hope that I am not going to have to wait until the film comes out in Britain to watch United 93."

Yesterday, a spokeswoman for the American Embassy said the actor had not been denied a visa, simply not applied for one yet.

"Mr Alsamari has received visas in the past but we only became aware of his intent to travel to the United States again very recently. We will work with Mr Alsamari so that he can present a visa application at the embassy as soon as possible. We encourage applicants to make arrangements to apply for visas well in advance of their travel dates."

The explicit film, which claims to be a meticulous reconstruction of events, has already ignited an emotional debate throughout the United States.

When shown in New York, the trailers were greeted with tears from some and fury from others. One Manhattan cinema even decided to pull it from the screens after complaints.

Universal Pictures insisted it had the approval of every victim's family and planned to donate 10 per cent of its takings on the opening weekend to the Flight 93 National Memorial Fund.

The actors have been selected because of their real life experience. JJ Johnson who plays the captain of Flight 93 is a real United pilot, while some of his crew are genuine flight attendants. Mr Alsamari, one US blog said, was chosen because of his time in the Iraqi army - although Zacarias Moussaoui, who is on trial in the US for allegedly being part of the hijacking team, is French of Moroccan descent while most of the others who took part in the hijackings were Saudi Arabian.

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