An Iranian rebel army is attacking deep inside Iranian territory in a bid to further humiliate the forces of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The attack came as both Iranian and Iraqi diplomats prepared to begin preliminary peace talks yesterday at the United Nations in New York. It also came as officials in Baghdad said that Iraqi troops would pull out of Iran following three days of large-scale Iraqi attacks over the weekend, during which more than 8,600 Iranian soldiers were taken prisoner on the central and southern war fronts.
The rebel group is working for the overthrow of the government of Ayatollah Khomeini. Only a year ago it formed the National Liberation Army (NLA), a well-heeled militia of several thousand men and women operating from bases in central Iraq.
Spokesmen for the anti-Khomeini Mujahideen Khalq claim the NLA captured Tuesday two towns in western Iran - Islamabad and Kerend - and were pressing toward Bachtaran, the regional capital. They also said NLA fighters had captured Iran's Beheshti garrison east of Islamabad, and had destroyed the Revolutionary Guard's 27th ``Mohammed'' division. They said NLA forces had pushed more than 90 miles into Iran.
Radio Tehran said both towns had fallen and that there was heavy fighting under way east of Bachtaran. Initially, Iran said Iraq had launched the assault, but later Iran said both Iraqi soldiers and ``counter-revolutionary mercenaries'' were mounting the attack.
``Iran is trying to attribute this offensive to the Iraqis ... but this is just propaganda by the Khomeini regime to stop the cooperation of the [Iranian] people with the NLA,'' says Farzin Hashemi, a Mujahideen spokesman in London.
He says that ``many'' Iranian soldiers had left their positions to join the NLA and that others were refusing to fight against the rebel group. It was not possible to independently confirm this claim.
The Iranian news agency said that revolutionary guards, the regular Army, and volunteer forces, as well as local residents and tribal guerrillas were fighting back against the NLA.
Iran's news agency also reported Tuesday that the Iranian parliament had closed temporarily to allow its members to go to the front. Mujahideen spokesmen cited the move as a sign of trouble for the Iranian government.
Hashemi says the current operation, the NLA's largest ever, was aimed at toppling the regime by pressing the government to the breaking point. ``The objective is the overthrow of Khomeini,'' he says. ``Peace can only come to the region through a democratic alternative to the Khomeini regime.''
The NLA attack - coming on the eve of possible Iran-Iraq peace talks - points up a central concern for the Mujahideen and the NLA should the UN cease-fire negotiations prove successful.
Mujahideen spokesmen refuse to discuss the issue of what might happen to the NLA should Iraq agree to a cease-fire with Iran. ``Wait until this operation is over. It could be a different ball game,'' a Mujahideen member says. ``This operation might change everything.''
Some analysts have suggested Iraq might consider using the NLA as a buffer-zone force to patrol an Iraqi-imposed ``no man's land'' at strategic points along the 730-mile Iran-Iraq war front.