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Iran sees less threat in exiled MKO militants

Some 100 members of the Iranian antiregime group have left a holding camp in Iraq in recent weeks. Iran says amnesty offer holds.

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The situation highlights the sensitivity of Camp Ashraf, which has been virtually off-limits to journalists since the fall of Saddam Hussein. According to some of the 340 former MKO members who have returned to Iran with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the MKO controls all aspects of life in the camp. Numbers have dropped: Only 12 returned to Iran in all of 2007, and three more in mid-January.

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"We don't have the impression that these people are harassed or bothered, ... mainly because the families and the [Iranian] authorities want them to come back," says Andreas Schweizer, until recently the ICRC protection officer in Tehran. "We haven't heard of any problems so far."

Indeed, in 2005, when the Monitor followed up privately on the story of one returnee, his mother complained about the lack official reintegration help. There had been no government interference either, she said.

The MKO's checkered and violent history has kept it on the US and European terrorist list. The MKO killed several American military advisers and civilians in Iran in the 1970s, played a key role in Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, and supported the US Embassy seizure before breaking away and launching attacks that have killed scores of senior Iranian officials.

Exiled first to France and then expelled in 1986, the MKO was given safe haven, weapons, and cash from Saddam Hussein. Though he used it to fight Iran during the Iran-Iraq war – an act that soured most Iranians toward the group – and to help quell local uprisings in 1991, the MKO today portrays itself as a democratic Iranian government-in-waiting.

MKO coleader Maryam Rajavi, as quoted recently in the Opinion pages of the Monitor, claims substantial underground support in Iran, and said US labeling of Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group is a "clear testament and an indispensable prelude to democratic change in Iran."

But analysts dispute claims of broad support. "They are so discredited in Iran that I can't imagine they have any social basis," says Ervand Abrahamian, an Iran historian at the City University of New York and author of "The Iranian Mojahedin," a study of the MKO.

"I think you would find the current President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad more democratic than the Mujahideen," says Mr. Abrahamian. "Even in the early 1970s, it had turned into a cult organization…. The remaining members ... will do whatever [MKO leader Massoud] Rajavi tells them."