Mujahideen-e Khalq, an Iraq-based group founded to fight Iran’s regime, may be expelled from its base this week.
TEHRAN, IRAN 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.
Lives on the line
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.
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."
"Scott Peterson is the Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor"