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Why the US granted 'protected' status to Iranian terrorists

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US forces bombed MKO camps during the Iraq invasion, then made a cease-fire deal. Last August, the US forced the MKO to close its offices in Washington.

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The State Department says it does not plan take the MKO off its terrorism list. But a July 21 memo from Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the US deputy commander in Iraq, told the MKO the decision "sends a strong signal and is a powerful first step on the road to your final individual disposition," according to a copy quoted by The New York Times.

Militants in the camp signed a statement renouncing violence and terrorism. In the memo, General Miller said he was "writing to congratulate each individual living in Camp Ashraf" of their status.

Tehran, which has demanded either the prosecution of MKO members or their handover to Iran, responded angrily.

"We already knew that America was not serious in fighting terrorism," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said on Tuesday, adding that the US had now created a new category of "good terrorists." "The American resort to the Geneva Conventions to support the terrorist hypocrites [MKO] is naïve and unacceptable."

The changing status of the MKO is little surprise to some experts.

"The [terrorism] designation process is often hijacked for political purposes, and may shift with the wind," says Magnus Ranstorp, head of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University in Scotland.

"Your enemy's enemy is your friend," says Mr. Ranstorp. "And certainly since the Iraq conflict, the MKO has gravitated toward a more serious category, because of political expediency."

That expediency appears to be part of a growing cascade of anti-Iran sentiment in the US that some say could eventually lead to military action. Among the signals: The Sept. 11 Commission report found that perhaps half of the 9/11 hijackers passed through Iran without having their passports stamped, though they may have crossed without official knowledge.

Some US and Iraqi officials - facing continued bloodshed and chaos in Iraq - accuse Iran of intervening to undermine the US occupation and the new "sovereign" Iraqi leadership.

Questions remain about the true intentions of Iran's nuclear power effort, which the US accuses of being a front for a weapons program. Several senior Al Qaeda members remain - in custody, according to Iranian officials - in Iran.

And Europeans - once supportive of constructive engagement with Iran - have been taken aback by Iranian waffling on nuclear inspections, the rejection of thousands of candidates from elections last February, and the spectacle of British sailors arrested last month.

In Washington earlier this month, Republican senators introduced the "Iran Freedom and Support Act of 2004," a $10 million measure to support pro-democracy groups and broadcasting. Tehran responded that "those who draft such plans lag behind the times, they live in their daydreams."

In a recent Council on Foreign Relations report, several Iran experts have called for a limited re-engagement with Iran. They say that lack of any official contact with Iran for 25 years has harmed US interests.

But British historian Ansari says, "At the moment, I would lay more blame on the Iranians, because they are in a position of strength...and should now seize the initiative and make bold and constructive suggestions." He adds, "they're not doing anything.... they are miscalculating."

Meanwhile, the MKO may have its own model to follow, and use its "protected" status as a springboard. "They are trying desperately to set themselves up as Iran's equivalent of the Iraqi National Congress," says Ansari, referring to the Iraqi opposition group led by former Pentagon favorite Ahmed Chalabi. "The Iranians will be aware that the Americans are trying to keep them as a potential INC."

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