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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.

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An amnesty offer from President Mohamed Khatami - coupled with relatively soft treatment of recently captured MKO operatives and the expulsion deadline - is sparking new hope. In Geneva earlier this month, Mr. Khatami said Iran was ready to accept MKO fighters who "are in Iraq and regret" past acts. "We will welcome them and judge them according to the law," he said.

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That's a sweeping change from the early 1980s and 1988, when the hunt for MKO sympathizers and other dissidents resulted in thousands of executions. In the early 1990s, Iranian intelligence agents were implicated in a series of assassinations of MKO chiefs across Europe.

"The first thing we must do is tell them: 'You are called terrorists all over the world, even by the US, and you can't go anywhere,'" says Hora Shalchi, a diminutive former operative who carried out two mortar attacks in Tehran and served prison time, before joining Nejat. "The only place you will be welcome is home, in Iran."

Nejat members and Camp Ashraf veterans - some still in prison in Iran - speak of a wish to "rescue" MKO members from the Iraq camps. Most activists, they contend, are "prisoners" of the organization with little access to news from the outside world, who are told they will be tortured and killed if they return to Iran.

But the message of a dozen former militants interviewed for this article - often for several hours each, half of them still imprisoned by Iran's Revolutionary Court - is that the MKO is no longer deemed a critical threat by the Iranian regime.

And so brutal treatment of the past has given way to a new strategy.

The path that led many away from the MKO is often similar to that of Ms. Shalchi, an unlikely woman attacker with brown eyes and carefully trimmed eyebrows.

She joined the MKO in 1996, because her parents were "loyal" supporters. She soon found herself at Camp Ashraf, as part of a special squad that she says trained in isolation for "terror operations."

Shalchi returned to Iran in the spring of 2001, crossing the border on foot "like a pregnant woman" with five 60mm mortar rounds, half a mortar launch tube, and a Colt .45 pistol tucked under her chador-and cyanide tablets ready under her tongue. Her female MKO teammate carried three more mortars, and the other half of the launch tube.

Their target was a sprawling military base in Tehran. In the getaway car, unaware of the operation, were Shalchi's parents, her young brother, and a girl.

"I was so brainwashed, I took my 6-year-old daughter with me," Shalchi recalls. "I didn't think that she could be the first person to be hurt."

With hands shaking nervously, Shalchi blasted the mortars, but missed the target. The young women were then chased down by a crowd. Shalchi fired her gun to scare off a young man, and found out later she had wounded him in the shoulder.

Echoing the experience of several captured MKO fighters, her first doubts came in Tehran. "We were told [by the MKO]: 'Any bullet you shoot, [Iranians] will applaud you. All of the people really support you,' " Shalchi says. "But we weren't accepted by anybody. There was no support. They told us a lot of lies."

Then, back in Iraq, Shalchi says her eyes were opened further. She was admonished for not killing the boy. "I was really surprised. I thought there was no reason to kill an ordinary person," Shalchi says. "Our objective was to fight the [Iranian] military forces."

Life is not easy in Camp Ashraf for militants who raise questions, a trait of those recruited in the US. Arash Sametipour - the failed assassin who tried to kill himself - traveled from the Northern Virginia Community College to Iraq, and suffered from the daily self-criticism.