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Inside a group caught between three powers

Mujahideen-e Khalq, an Iraq-based group founded to fight Iran's regime, may be expelled from its base this week.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 31, 2003


The day Masumeh Roshan had been praying for finally came in late September, when the Iranian mother traveled to Iraq to visit her only son - a teenager she says was lured into ties with terrorism.

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But the joyful reunion soon dissolved into tears at Ashraf Camp, where US troops are guarding some 3,800 militants of the Mujahideen-e Khalq Organization (MKO) - the only armed opposition to the ruling clerics of Iran.

Ms. Roshan's militant son, they said, could not leave.

The case of those holed up in Camp Ashraf, near Baghdad, remains a quirky piece of unfinished business left over from the American campaign to oust Saddam Hussein. It continues to leave a trail of broken lives.

Officially, both the US and Iran label the MKO a terrorist group. The US-appointed Iraq Governing Council concurs: Citing the "black history of this terrorist organization" and its years of working closely with Mr. Hussein, it has ordered the expulsion of the MKO from Iraq by the end of this year.

But the MKO's fate is unclear. While the Iraqis want it disbanded, the politically savvy group still has support among some congressmen and Pentagon officials, who see it as a potential tool against Iran, a country which President Bush calls part of an "axis of evil."

Some MKO tips have led to recent revelations about key aspects of Iran's clandestine nuclear program, though many others have proven unreliable. Long a diplomatic hot potato - which Tehran has offered to solve, by exchanging MKO militants for Al Qaeda players now in Iran - the MKO continues to complicate US-Iran-Iraq relations.

Lives on the line

But for those rank-and-file members trying to escape MKO control, resolving the status issue is an urgent need. Ms. Roshan says she hardly recognized the gaunt visage of her 17-year-old boy, Majid Amini, at Ashraf Camp.

"He pulled my ear to his lips, and said: 'Don't cry; be sure that I will come with you. I can't stay here; they are not human beings,' " Roshan recalls, trying to control her trembling voice.

But Mr. Amini - a Karate kid with an orange belt, who his parents say was recruited to join the MKO in Tehran with promises of completing two school grades in one year and gaining a place in college - was forced to remain behind.

"He took his uniform off, stamped on it, and shouted: 'I can't go back! My life will be in danger!' " Roshan recalls during an interview in Tehran. MKO officers and US troops insisted the young man stay, and Roshan climbed alone onto the bus home. "I was like a dead person," she says.

The voices of former MKO militants give a rare glimpse inside a group they say demands a cult-like control over members, practices Mao-style self-denunciations, and requires worship of husband-and-wife leaders Massoud and Maryam Rajavi.

Recruited from the United States and Europe, or even drawn directly from Iranians held in Iraqi prisoner-of-war camps and jails, the former fighters describe a high level of fear, and speak of their own awakening - and freedom from the MKO's grip - as if it's an epiphany.

The US State Department lists the MKO as a terrorist group that conducted assassinations against American citizens in the 1970s - and was behind bombings and killings of hundreds of members of the Iranian regime starting in the early 1980s.

By one count, after the recent invasion of Iraq, the MKO surrendered to US troops 300 tanks, 250 armored personnel carriers, 250 artillery pieces, and 10,000 small arms. Still, the group is reported to be able to continue antiregime broadcasts into Iran.

The Pentagon - after bombing MKO camps in Iraq in the first stages of the invasion - quickly worked out a truce with the group some civilian hawks in the Pentagon believe should be supported and turned into a US tool of opposition against the Islamic Republic of Iran.