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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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"They beat me down so much, after six months it worked - I became MKO in my mind," says Sametipour, a baby-faced inmate wearing the baggy gray-blue garb of Iran's prisons, imprinted with the scales of justice. "When you face such an organization, you think: 'All the problems are myself; the organization is clean.' If you have a question, it has an answer, and it's only me who doesn't understand."

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Sametipour expected to die in custody. But instead he was interrogated, and given prison time that he says includes newspapers, TV, and even a call home to his parents in the US.

"What I saw were very logical interrogations.... They did not look at us as enemies, but as people who need help," Sametipour says. "They told us: 'You are not a threat to our government.'"

From Boston to Iraq

Also arriving from America was Mohamed Akbarin, who had been hitchhiking around the US and studying mechanical engineering at Boston's Northeastern University, when he joined the MKO in the mid-1980s.

Because he spoke English, Mr. Akbarin was chosen as a helicopter pilot, helped orchestrate trips for foreign journalists, and later - after an unsuccessful escape attempt - spent time in Iraqi and MKO jails.

He will never forget one incident in the mid-1990s, that told him the reality of fear for some MKO cadres. "I know what happens when you say: 'I want to leave, ' " Akbarin says. One man was accused of trying to escape, and Akbarin saw him that day. "They found him, beat him up, and poured gas on him, as though they were going to burn him."

As an organizer of "guest" visits to Ashraf Camp, Akbarin says he saw deception tactics firsthand. When the MKO mounted large military parades, for example, Iraqi helicopters were used.

"We painted our symbol across Iraqi ones, and when it was done, we would wash it off or repaint it," Akbarin says. To boost troop strength, fighters - including him - would parade past two or three times.

Akbarin was not the only MKO fighter to notice the gap between fact and fiction. Babak Amin crossed to Iran in 2001 and carried out nine attacks aimed at disrupting Iran's elections.

Today Mr. Amin is serving a 10-year sentence in Tehran's Evin prison. But as he sent reports of his 2001 attacks back to Iraq using a satellite phone, he was surprised to see how embellished his exploits became on MKO websites.

In one case, he says he fired three small rifle grenades, which landed innocuously in the yard of a quasi-government building. On the Web, the attack was turned into a three-pronged attack with several groups of mujahideen, using RPGs and grenades.

In another case, Amin reported injuring one person during a shootout near the Defense Ministry. The MKO declared that 10 of Iran's security forces were killed.

"From the first day I came back to Iran after 15 years, we were facing exactly the opposite of what we were told by the [MKO]," says Amin, whose round face and moustache fit a European businessman more than a terrorist. "People are really brainwashed."

That was also the feeling of Mohsen Hashemi, even though he and his family had long supported the MKO and even produced three "martyrs" who died for the cause. Mr. Hashemi worked as an MKO agent in Iran for years.

But then he was brought to Iraq. As soon as he arrived, Hashemi was jailed for 2-1/2 months and doubts began to grow. Then he saw political videotapes in which, he says, MKO leader Rajavi "compared himself with Jesus and God, and claimed he was the 12th imam of Shiite Islam who had returned."

Hashemi says he finally had a breakdown after attending his first speech with Rajavi. He came out of the hall, "sat in the toilet and cried for 15 minutes," he says. "I realized I made such a mistake, to work so many years for this Dracula."

"The most important part of the organization has collapsed - all that is left is the fear," says Hashemi. "They are afraid to come back here."

Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report from Washington.

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