Congressional supporters of an Iraq-based terrorist organization kept a low profile this week after confirmation that U.S.-led coalition forces attacked their bases during the final days of the war.
The group, known as the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), is made up of Iranian dissidents based in Baghdad. Despite a history of violence against Americans and its common cause with former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, the group developed a significant following in Congress for its opposition to Tehran’s regime.
In 1997, the State Department identified the MEK as a foreign terrorist organization. Last Tuesday, General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged in a briefing at the Pentagon that the U.S. bombed MEK forces.
“We are still pursuing elements of the MEK inside Iraq,” Myers said, adding: “It’s possible some of them may surrender very soon to coalition forces.” We’re still interested in that particular group.”
House supporters of the MEK, led by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), staunchly defended the group when The Hill reported April 2 that U.S. officials were targeting their bases in Iraq.
“They’e a combatant,” a State Department spokesman said at the time. “Targeting data is being provided to the Pentagon. We believe they are undertaking some of the actions in the south [of Iraq] where enemy combatants have disguised themselves as civilians.”
Ros-Lehtinen insisted at the time that the State Department spokesman was wrong and that her sources in the U.S. government assured her the MEK was not considered a combatant.
“This group loves the United States; they’re assisting us in the war on terrorism; they’re pro-U.S.” she told The Hill. “This group has not been fighting against the U.S. It simply isn’t true. “ I have attended many classified briefings on the Hill, and never once has this group been brought up.”
Over the years, officials in the counterterrorism office at the State Department have regularly tried to meet with lawmakers who support the MEK in an effort to dissuade them.
Aides to Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House International Relations subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia, did not return several calls for comment after Following confirmation from Gen. Myers confirmed that the MEK was regarded and treated as an enemy during the war.
Earlier this month, Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) expressed shock upon hearing that the State Department considered the MEK combatants. “If these reports are accurate, that’s the end of it for me,” he told The Hill three weeks ago.
But citing “information of a different nature entirely from people who are closer to the scene than the State Department,” Tancredo later called The Hill to reassert his backing of the MEK. He declined to identify his sources at the time, except to say that they were with “our government”
Like Ros-Lehtinen’s office, Tancredo’s aides did not return calls this week seeking comment.
Other lawmakers who have long backed the MEK also declined comment. They are Reps. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), Bob Filner (D-Calif.), Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas).
Although the MEK’s political arm, the National Council of Resistance, has garnered signatures of support from a number of U.S. lawmakers, it’s unclear whether those members were adequately informed about the group when they signed on.
Ros-Lehtinen claims 150 colleagues signed a letter she circulated last year in support of the MEK. Although the letter was released in November, Ros-Lehtinen has repeatedly declined to name those Congress members who backed her.
“A list has not been published because most members who initially signed on have withdrawn their support and the list has dwindled down to no more than a handful of Congressional supporters,”charged Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), a vocal critic of the MEK.
Several lawmakers said they asked to have their names removed when they learned more about the group. In addition, Reps. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) and Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), the chairman and ranking member of the House International Relations committee, respectively, wrote a counterletter to their colleagues providing “ful” and “accurate” information on the MEK.
The group’s supporters on Capitol Hill may decrease after Myers’ comments. On Thursday, other senior administration officials echoed Myers’ comments to reporters. “The [MEK] forces were fully integrated with Saddam Hussein’s command and control [and] therefore constituted legitimate military targets that posed a threat to coalition forces,” said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher in Washington.
“We know there’s a presence of the [MEK] inside of Iraq, and indeed we have been targeting them for some time,” said Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks from Central Command in Doha, Qatar. “There’s work that’s ongoing right now to secure some sort of agreement that would be a cease-fire and capitulation,” he said.
On Monday, The Associated Press reported a military spokesman saying that a cease-fire had been negotiated with MEK forces in Iraq.
By Sam Dealy