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The imams who claimed two first-class seats said their tickets were upgraded. The gate agent told police that when the imams asked to be upgraded, they were told no such seats were available. Nevertheless, the two men were seated in first class when removed.

A flight attendant said one of the men made two trips to the rear of the plane to talk to the imam during boarding, and again when the flight was delayed because of their behavior. Aviation officials, including air marshals and pilots, said these actions alone would not warrant a second look, but the combination is suspicious.

“That’s like shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. You just can’t do that anymore,” said Robert MacLean, a former air marshal.

“They should have been denied boarding and been investigated,” Mr. MacLean said. “It looks like they are trying to create public sympathy or maybe setting someone up for a lawsuit.”

The pilot with another airline who talked to The Washington Times on condition of anonymity, said he would have made the same call as the US Airways pilot.

“If any group of passengers is commingling in the terminal and didn’t sit in their assigned seats or with each other, I would stop everything and investigate until they could provide me with a reason they did not sit in their assigned seats.”

One of the passengers, Omar Shahin, told Newsweek the group did everything it could to avoid suspicion by wearing Western clothes, speaking English and booking seats so they were not together. He said they conducted prayers quietly and separately to avoid attention.

The imams had attended a conference sponsored by the North American Imam Federation in Minneapolis and were returning to Phoenix. Mr. Shahin, who is president of the federation, said on his Web site that none of the passengers made pro-Saddam or anti-American statements.

The pilot said the airlines are not “secretly prejudiced against any nationality, religion or culture,” and that the only target of profiling is passenger behavior.

“There are certain behaviors that raise the bar, and not sitting in your assigned seat raises the bar substantially,” the pilot said. “Especially since we know that this behavior has been evident in suspicious probes in the past.”

“Someone at US Airways made a notably good decision,” said a second pilot, who also does not work for US Airways.

A spokeswoman for US Airways declined to discuss the incident. Aviation security officials said thousands of Muslims fly every day and conduct prayers in airports in a quiet and private manner without creating incidents.