CAMP ASHRAF, Iraq (AP) – The U.S. army surrounded camps of an Iranian opposition group in eastern Iraq on Friday, demanding they lay down their arms or "be destroyed."
Surrender negotiations between U.S. officials and the Mujahedeen Khalq continued past nightfall with no apparent resolution, though the Americans appeared confident of an agreement. The confrontation came three weeks after a truce between the Iranians and the army, which U.S. officials said had been a "prelude" to surrender.
But the group’s well-armed force, which for years has fought Iran’s Islamic rulers with the backing of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, poses a potential challenge to the U.S.-led coalition’s authority as Iraq’s military occupier and U.S. troops said they were prepared for full-scale combat.
U.S. Abrams tanks lined nearby highways and helicopters flew low over the low-slung sandstone buildings that are Camp Ashraf, the group’s headquarters. U.S. officials said thousands of Mujahedeen fighters were inside.
Under the April 15 truce, the Mujahedeen Khalq could keep its weapons to defend itself against Iranian attacks but had to stop manning checkpoints it had set up, with armed fighters in khaki uniforms behind sandbagged emplacements and Jeeps mounted with machine-guns.
At the time, the U.S. State Department called the agreement "a prelude to the group’s surrender."
"This has been in the works for a while. The ceasefire was a stepping stone to the capitulation agreement," military spokesman Capt. Josh Felker said.
But reports of roadblock confrontations involving the group in recent days suggested it had continued playing an active, armed role in the region. U.S. military commanders "don’t want two armed forces in the area," Felker said.
Still, he indicated the standoff with the group – listed by the United States as a terrorist organization since the 1990s – could be resolved peacefully.
"As far as I know, they are agreeing to capitulate at this time," he said.
The Mujahedeen Khalq was negotiating with Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of the U.S. army’s 4th Infantry Division.
The U.S. ultimatum also came amid reports fighters loyal to an Iranian-based anti-Saddam group, the Badr Brigade, have been infiltrating into the area near the Mujahedeen’s base. The United States fears clashes between the two opposing groups.
Mujahedeen Khalq forces also contend Iranian fighters ambushed them at least once in recent days, wounding one.
Friday’s confrontation pits the United States against a group that spent a generation fighting Iran’s clerical regime – the government President George W. Bush includes in his "axis of evil."
More negotiations were planned for Sunday morning but the U.S. army wouldn’t comment further about whether Friday’s talks produced any progress.
The choices for the paramilitaries appeared bleak. U.S. military talking points gave the following guidance, using the group’s acronym: "MEK forces will be destroyed or compelled to surrender, leading to disarmament and detention."
The Mujahedeen Khalq, the People’s Warriors, is the military wing of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran, an umbrella body said to unite Iran’s diverse opposition groups.
Before Saddam’s ouster, the group helped train Saddam’s elite Republican Guard units, the U.S. military said. It has several camps near Baqubah, about 70 kilometres northeast of the Iraqi capital Baghdad and not far from the Iranian border.
It was allied with the late ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic fundamentalists during the 1979 revolution that overthrew the pro-U.S. dictatorship of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. But the new government soon banned the Mujahedeen Khalq and other groups that advocated a secular regime.
In the past, Washington deemed the Mujahedeen Khalq a terrorist organization. Iran’s clerical government has said it was hypocritical of the United States to describe the group as terrorist, yet still sanction its existence.
During the 1970s, the group was accused in attacks that killed several U.S. military personnel and civilians working on defence projects in Iran, although the group denies targeting Americans. It was reported to have backed the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in the Iranian capital Tehran in 1979.