Who is the MEK? Why are they protected in Iraq? (Part one)
The War on Terror. The Iraqi occupation. The neoconservative idealist notion of liberating the Middle East. Regime change in Iran. All of the points reach a nexus with the Mujahideen-e Khalq [MEK], an anti-Iranian regime Foreign Terrorist Organization in Iraq with US backing. In this first entry in a three-part series, I explore the history of the MEK and its protection by American forces in Iraq.
Background and history
The Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), also known as the People’s Mujahideen of Iran, are a revolutionary political extremist group that dates back some 40 years. The MEK was founded an anti-Islamist rule organization which has sought a ‘people’s revolution’ in the nation of Iran since its inception in 1965. The founders of the MEK were intellectuals at Tehran University who strongly opposed the rule of the Shah in the 70s, espousing a secular, Marxist ideology. The MEK has a military faction called the National Liberation Army (NLA), and is also affiliated with the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). In addition to the MEK, the NLA and the NCRI, numerous front organizations are also led by husband-and-wife Massoud and Maryam Rajavi. During the early 70’s, the MEK were responsible for the following assassinations of Americans:
• June 2, 1973: Lt. Colonel Lewis L. Hawkins
• May 21, 1975: Air Force Colonel Paul Schaeffer
– Air Force Lt. Colonel Jack Turner
• August 28, 1976: Donald G. Smith
– Robert R. Krongrad
– William C. Cottrell
The MEK also assisted and endorsed the occupation of the US Embassy in Tehran and hostage taking.
The Flight to Iraq
The MEK played a role in the 1979 Iranian Revolution . In 1981, the MEK bombed the offices of the Islamic Republic Party, murdering 70 senior Iranian officials. Countless arrests, executions of MEK members and the closure of MEK locations, led the MEK to flee to Iraq in order to enlist in the Iran-Iraq war of the 80’s. In 1986, the MEK established its permanent headquarters in Iraq, with Saddam Hussein as its main source of funding. The [MEK] was used by Hussein to quell internal uprisings, especially the Shiite and Kurdish uprisings in 1991. “They were worse than the Iraqi army, because they weren’t Iraqs,” said Muhsim Ali Akbar, a Kurdish official in Khanaqin, where the MEK sent tanks. “They didn’t care.”
Iranian perception of the MEK
“Though many Iranians take issue with their clerical rules, [MEK] members are widely seen as traitors, as they fought alongside Iraqi troops against Iran in the 1980s.”
“The message of a dozen former militants interviewed…is that the [MEK] is no longer deemed a critical threat by the Iranian regime.”
Inside Iran and throughout the Middle East, the MEK are known by critics as the Monafeqin (hypocrits), a derogatory reference to Mujahideen.
Shortly before the recent presidential elections, 150 protestors demonstrated outside the governor’s office, waving flags and chanting ‘Death to hypocrites.’ “Based on intelligence we’ve received, a network was trying to create problems before the election,” said Ali Aghamohammadi, spokesman for Iran’s National Security Council. Included in the pre-election disruptions were the bombs that killed eight outside of Iranian government offices. “In Tehran, it’s only the MEK who have the operational power to launch something like this.”
Iranians typically see the contradictory ideals of the MEK and its appeal as more of a cult than an organized, coherent political movement. HRW reports, “The level of devotion expected of members was on stark display in 2003 when the French police arrested Maryam Rajavi in Paris. In protest, ten [MEK] members and sympathizers set themselves on fire in various European cities; two of them subsequently died.”
MEK makes the FTO list
In 1997, the State Department included the MEK on its list of FTOs (foreign terrorist organizations). The EU and the UK have also included the MEK in their FTO lists. To this day, the MEK remains on the US FTO list, despite attempts by Congress and neoconservatives to drop their terrorist status. Anthony Cordesman, former national security advisor and Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies:
"It’s a group that has attacked and murdered Americans…. But it has always been able to persuade people who don’t know about the region that it is more democratic than it really is."
In 1998, the assassination of the director of Iran’s prison system, Asadollah Lajevardi. In 1999, the assassination the deputy chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, Ali Sayyad Shirazi. More recently, the MEK has carried out a series of mortar attacks and hit-and-run raids against Iranian government buildings in 2000 and 2001, killing the Iranian Chief of Staff. Also in 2000, a mortar attack on President Khatami’s palace in Tehran.
“The notable exception [to recent MEK attacks against the Iranian regime] is the simultaneous attacks conducted by the MEK in April 1992 on Iranian embassies in eleven countries, in retaliation for the bombing of MEK bases in Iraq by the Iranian Air Force just days earlier.”
Arrests & transfers
“Seven Iranians were arrested in 2001 in the US after $400,000 was found to have been transferred to a MEK front organization in the United Arab Emirates, which the FBI claims was ultimately used to buy weapons.”
“Last summer [of 2002], the US State Department outlawed several [MEK]-affiliated groups in the US. In June, France arrested 150 activists, including self-declaring “president-elect” Maryam Rajavi.” More than $1.3 million in MEK funds were seized. President-elect’ Maryam Rajavi remains detained at the MEK’s base in France to this day.
Early depiction in the War on Terror
On September 12, 2002, the Bush administration released its white paper on Iraq. It was similar to his speech to the UN General Assembly on the danger Iraq posed. The only concrete instance of terrorist ties to Iraq was none other than the MEK, “Iraq shelters terrorist groups including the [MEK], which has used terrorist violence against Iran and in the 1970s was responsible for killing several US military personnel and US citizens.”
American protection post-Iraq invasion
“The MEK claimed neutrality in the recent Iraq war, but it in fact took active measures against invading Americans and British forces. As of March 2003, the Mujahideen maintained 16 bases in the southern central and north-central areas of Iraq. Virtually all of these came under attack during the war. The first attack took place on March 28, when RAF warplanes attacked the Habib base, situated 82 kilometers north of Basra. The base was also attacked on the following day and subsequently abandoned by the [MEK]. The Americans bombed the massive Ashraf camp (72 kilometers northeast of Baghdad) more akin to a garrison town serving as the [MEK]’s global headquarters, on March 29. Ashraf was bombed again on April 4, April 12 and April 14.”
Shortly after the airstrikes, the MEK and the US reached a cease-fire agreement. “By one count, after the recent invasion of Iraq, the [MEK] 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 anti-regime broadcasts into Iran.” The Iraqi army uses some of this equipment to this day.
The MEK has been a central piece in the neoconservative push for regime change in Iran. So central that the administration has refused to turn over members to Iran in exchange for five senior Al Qaeda figures, including Saad bin Laden, the son of Osama bin Laden, and Saif al Adl, intelligence chief. More about this scrapped exchange later.
“Apart from the obvious short-term benefit of securing protection from an armed rebel group allied with the Iraqi regime, the long-term objective of the US Government is believed to have been an attempt to preserve the only major armed opposition to the Iranian regime.”
“On April 15, 2003, the US Army signed a cease-fire permitting the MEK to keep its weapons and use them against Iranian regime infiltrators in Iraq. This deal infuriated the State Department, which then convinced the president to undo it, leading to the strange sight of US troops surrounding MEK camps on May 9, disarming [MEK] fighters and taking up positions to protect them.”
Despite frequent denials of prisoner-of-war status and eligibilty under Geneva Conventions, the US granted the MEK full coverage under the Geneva Conventions. “How is it that [the MEK] get the Geneva Convention, and the people in Guantanamo Bay don’t get it? It’s a huge contradiction,” says Ali Ansari, a British expert on Iran. “This will be interpreted in Iran as another link in the chain of the US determination to move onto Iran next.”
“We already knew that America was not serious in fighting terrorism,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said, adding that the US had now created a new category of ‘good terrorists.’ “The American resort to the Geneva Conventions to support the terrorist hypocrites is naïve and unacceptable.” On top of protections under the Geneva Convention, the US concluded that “there was no basis to charge any of them with terrorist actions” or past murders.
“But the [MEK]’s fate in 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.”
August of 2003 brought the closure of MEK-affiliated offices in Washington by the State Department and the freezing of its assets. Before this, Attorney General Ashcroft had been a staunch supporter of the MEK. From October 2001 until mid-August of 2003, Ashcroft made no moves to shut down MEK-affiliated front organizations, despite a widely-publicized MEK lobbying presence in Washington. Earlier in September 2000, Newsweek reports that Ashcroft, as a Senator, sent a letter of support to the MEK which was read aloud to a cheering crowd at a MEK/NCRI rally at the UN during a protest of President Khatami. NRCI spokesman Alireza Jafarzadeh recalls that he “had several meetings with Ashcroft aides” and that he considers Ashcroft “a supporter of his group.” Also in 2000, Ashcroft would write Attorney General Janet Reno, advising her to release Mahnaz Samadi, leading spokesman for the National Council of Resistsance of Iran. Ashcroft wasn’t alone in his support for the MEK. In part two, I’ll cover the widespread support and misinformation rampant among Congressmen and neoconservatives focused on toppling the Iranian regime.
In October of 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell wrote Defense Secretary Rumsfeld to remind him that the MEK were US ‘captives, not allies.’
In November 13, 2003, Condoleezza Rice clarified the US’ role as protector and regulator of the MEK, “I just want to be very clear that the US remains committed to preventing the MEK, which is now contained in Iraq, from engaging in terrorist activities, including activities in Iran, and its reconstitution inside Iraq as a terrorist organization.”
A month later, Paul Bremer stated, “We want to involve the UN High Commission for Refugees in settling the [MEK] in three countries,” which the Iraqi government would determine. On December 9, the Governing Council ruled to deport the MEK. Two days later, members Nurredin Dara suggested sending them back to Iran, a move the MEK said would amount to a war crime.
Also towards the end of 2003, the Iraqi Governing Council orders the MEK to leave Iraq by the end of the year and end its ‘black history’ in Iraq. Pentagon officials do not want the MEK to disband and keep the MEK in Iraq.
In early 2005, some 250 members of MEK return to Iran from Camp Ashraf under custody, receiving amnesty by the Iranian government. The over 3,500 MEK members that remain in Camp Ashraf call those who leave ‘quitters.’
In June of 2005, Scott Ritter revealed that the MEK had already begun CIA-backed actions against the Iranian regime. Ritter points to increased US concentration in Azerbaijan in order to conduct short air strikes and pilot-less drones flying over Iran on recon missions. Iran has, of course, not shot down these crafts so as not to give the US a reason for an attack.
If war with Iran is inevitable due to the pressure of the neoconservative faction, it will begin as a covert war. A covert war that will possibly instigate something much more severe.
In part two, I delve into the stateside support of the MEK. Some members of Congress and many neoconservatives have rallied behind the MEK as a force for toppling the Iran regime. Similarly, I address the role of various MEK front organizations in recent media disinformation campaigns. Lastly, I conclude with the pursued deal with Iran to receive Al Qaeda members for members of MEK.
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