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.
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Militants who were once ready to die for the MKO, however, now have some advice for those who may want to apply the Afghan model to Iran by using the Mujahideen in the same way the Northern Alliance was used against the Taliban.Skip to next paragraph
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"I don't think the US can take advantage of this group," says Arash Sametipour, a former MKO militant recruited in the US. He survived his own attempts to kill himself with cyanide capsules and a hand grenade that blew away his right hand after botching an assassination attempt in Tehran in early 2000.
"When we were on clean-up duty [at Ashraf Camp], at 7 a.m. they played songs with words like 'At the end of the street, the Mujahideen is waiting - Yankee get out!' " recalls Mr. Sametipour, who speaks rapid-fire English with an American accent. He remains in prison in Iran, where he was made available at the request of the Monitor. "This organization does not like the US. It is a mixture of Mao and Marxism, and [leader Massoud] Rajavi acts like Stalin."
Ostensibly under US guard, the MKO still keeps its small arms. US officials said in November they were being screened for war crimes and terrorism. The Pentagon denies reports that the militants are able to freely roam or conduct attacks.
Reacting to the expulsion order earlier this month, the MKO claimed that the "vast majority of the Iraqi people" support their presence, and that the decision to shut them down "merely reflects the fantasies and illusions of the mullah's regime, which regards ... [us] as the biggest obstacle to its export of fundamentalism ... and theocratic dictatorship in Iraq."
MKO representatives could not be contacted for further comment. Both office and cellphone lines in Washington have been disconnected. The MKO office in Paris was unable to provide contact details for two senior officials it said were traveling in Europe.
Western diplomats and analysts agree that the MKO has very little support inside Iran itself. Though many Iranians take issue with their clerical rulers, MKO members are widely seen to be traitors, as they fought alongside Iraqi troops against Iran in the 1980s.
Most Iraqis, too, have little time for the MKO, which helped Hussein's security forces brutally put down the Kurdish uprising after the Gulf War in 1991, and helped Baghdad quell Shiite unrest in 1999. The group, however, said in a Dec. 11 statement that "throughout its 17 years in Iraq," it had "never" interfered in Iraq's internal affairs.
Last summer, the US State Department outlawed several MKO-affiliated groups in the US. In June, France arrested 150 activists, including self-declared "president-elect" Maryam Rajavi.
The crackdowns sparked some to publicly commit suicide by setting themselves alight - a type of protest that some suggest could be repeated if the MKO is forced out of Iraq.
Within days of the expulsion order, lawyers for the MKO - arguing that expulsion would violate the laws of war - are reported to have sent letters to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others, asking the Pentagon to overrule the move.
A senior Pentagon official told the Monitor Tuesday that the US was exploring the option of sending former MKO members to a country other than Iran.
"They ought to be vetted," he said, "and anyone who is a criminal deserves to be punished somehow. [But] they don't have to go back [to Iran]. If they are not guilty of crimes there are various places they could go."
The MKO has already turned into a bargaining chip, Tehran has floated a hand over of the MKO leadership by the US to Iran, in exchange for senior Al Qaeda leaders now in Iran. And the interim government in Iraq is not alone in trying to disband the MKO. Former members now back in Iran run an agency called the Nejat "Freedom" Committee, which aims to reunite hundreds of Iranian families with MKO militants.