The day Masumeh Roshan had been praying for finally came in late September, when the Iranian mother traveled to Iraq to visit her only son - a teenager she says was lured into ties with terrorism.
But the joyful reunion soon dissolved into tears at Ashraf Camp, where US troops are guarding some 3,800 militants of the Mujahideen-e Khalq Organization (MKO) - the only armed opposition to the ruling clerics of Iran.
Ms. Roshan's militant son, they said, could not leave.
The case of those holed up in Camp Ashraf, near Baghdad, remains a quirky piece of unfinished business left over from the American campaign to oust Saddam Hussein. It continues to leave a trail of broken lives.
Officially, both the US and Iran label the MKO a terrorist group. The US-appointed Iraq Governing Council concurs: Citing the "black history of this terrorist organization" and its years of working closely with Mr. Hussein, it has ordered the expulsion of the MKO from Iraq by the end of this year.
But the MKO's fate is unclear. While the Iraqis want it disbanded, the politically savvy group still has support among some congressmen and Pentagon officials, who see it as a potential tool against Iran, a country which President Bush calls part of an "axis of evil."
Some MKO tips have led to recent revelations about key aspects of Iran's clandestine nuclear program, though many others have proven unreliable. Long a diplomatic hot potato - which Tehran has offered to solve, by exchanging MKO militants for Al Qaeda players now in Iran - the MKO continues to complicate US-Iran-Iraq relations.
But for those rank-and-file members trying to escape MKO control, resolving the status issue is an urgent need. Ms. Roshan says she hardly recognized the gaunt visage of her 17-year-old boy, Majid Amini, at Ashraf Camp.
"He pulled my ear to his lips, and said: 'Don't cry; be sure that I will come with you. I can't stay here; they are not human beings,' " Roshan recalls, trying to control her trembling voice.
But Mr. Amini - a Karate kid with an orange belt, who his parents say was recruited to join the MKO in Tehran with promises of completing two school grades in one year and gaining a place in college - was forced to remain behind.
"He took his uniform off, stamped on it, and shouted: 'I can't go back! My life will be in danger!' " Roshan recalls during an interview in Tehran. MKO officers and US troops insisted the young man stay, and Roshan climbed alone onto the bus home. "I was like a dead person," she says.
The voices of former MKO militants give a rare glimpse inside a group they say demands a cult-like control over members, practices Mao-style self-denunciations, and requires worship of husband-and-wife leaders Massoud and Maryam Rajavi.
Recruited from the United States and Europe, or even drawn directly from Iranians held in Iraqi prisoner-of-war camps and jails, the former fighters describe a high level of fear, and speak of their own awakening - and freedom from the MKO's grip - as if it's an epiphany.
The US State Department lists the MKO as a terrorist group that conducted assassinations against American citizens in the 1970s - and was behind bombings and killings of hundreds of members of the Iranian regime starting in the early 1980s.
By one count, after the recent invasion of Iraq, the MKO surrendered to US troops 300 tanks, 250 armored personnel carriers, 250 artillery pieces, and 10,000 small arms. Still, the group is reported to be able to continue antiregime broadcasts into Iran.
The Pentagon - after bombing MKO camps in Iraq in the first stages of the invasion - quickly worked out a truce with the group some civilian hawks in the Pentagon believe should be supported and turned into a US tool of opposition against the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Militants who were once ready to die for the MKO, however, now have some advice for those who may want to apply the Afghan model to Iran by using the Mujahideen in the same way the Northern Alliance was used against the Taliban.
"I don't think the US can take advantage of this group," says Arash Sametipour, a former MKO militant recruited in the US. He survived his own attempts to kill himself with cyanide capsules and a hand grenade that blew away his right hand after botching an assassination attempt in Tehran in early 2000.
"When we were on clean-up duty [at Ashraf Camp], at 7 a.m. they played songs with words like 'At the end of the street, the Mujahideen is waiting - Yankee get out!' " recalls Mr. Sametipour, who speaks rapid-fire English with an American accent. He remains in prison in Iran, where he was made available at the request of the Monitor. "This organization does not like the US. It is a mixture of Mao and Marxism, and [leader Massoud] Rajavi acts like Stalin."
Ostensibly under US guard, the MKO still keeps its small arms. US officials said in November they were being screened for war crimes and terrorism. The Pentagon denies reports that the militants are able to freely roam or conduct attacks.
Reacting to the expulsion order earlier this month, the MKO claimed that the "vast majority of the Iraqi people" support their presence, and that the decision to shut them down "merely reflects the fantasies and illusions of the mullah's regime, which regards ... [us] as the biggest obstacle to its export of fundamentalism ... and theocratic dictatorship in Iraq."
MKO representatives could not be contacted for further comment. Both office and cellphone lines in Washington have been disconnected. The MKO office in Paris was unable to provide contact details for two senior officials it said were traveling in Europe.
Western diplomats and analysts agree that the MKO has very little support inside Iran itself. Though many Iranians take issue with their clerical rulers, MKO members are widely seen to be traitors, as they fought alongside Iraqi troops against Iran in the 1980s.
Most Iraqis, too, have little time for the MKO, which helped Hussein's security forces brutally put down the Kurdish uprising after the Gulf War in 1991, and helped Baghdad quell Shiite unrest in 1999. The group, however, said in a Dec. 11 statement that "throughout its 17 years in Iraq," it had "never" interfered in Iraq's internal affairs.
Last summer, the US State Department outlawed several MKO-affiliated groups in the US. In June, France arrested 150 activists, including self-declared "president-elect" Maryam Rajavi.
The crackdowns sparked some to publicly commit suicide by setting themselves alight - a type of protest that some suggest could be repeated if the MKO is forced out of Iraq.
Within days of the expulsion order, lawyers for the MKO - arguing that expulsion would violate the laws of war - are reported to have sent letters to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others, asking the Pentagon to overrule the move.
A senior Pentagon official told the Monitor Tuesday that the US was exploring the option of sending former MKO members to a country other than Iran.
"They ought to be vetted," he said, "and anyone who is a criminal deserves to be punished somehow. [But] they don't have to go back [to Iran]. If they are not guilty of crimes there are various places they could go."
The MKO has already turned into a bargaining chip, Tehran has floated a hand over of the MKO leadership by the US to Iran, in exchange for senior Al Qaeda leaders now in Iran. And the interim government in Iraq is not alone in trying to disband the MKO. Former members now back in Iran run an agency called the Nejat "Freedom" Committee, which aims to reunite hundreds of Iranian families with MKO militants.
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.
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.
"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."
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.'"
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.