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Iranian ‘terror group’ divides Washington

WASHINGTON, Dec. 20 (UPI) — An Iranian dissident group that the U.S. State Department considers a "foreign terrorist organization" continues to enjoy support in Congress while being protected by the American military in Iraq.

The Mujahedin-e-Khalq organization, sometimes called the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, or PMOI, has been on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist groups since 1997 — even as it enjoys widespread support on Capitol Hill. In addition, the U.S. military has allowed the MeK to maintain an operational training facility in Iraq, said Gregg Sullivan, a State Department spokesman.

The facility, Camp Ashraf, is located about 60 miles northeast of Baghdad and houses approximately 3,800 Iranian exiles who are opposed to the regime in Tehran, according to experts. The MeK disarmed in 2003 as part of an agreement with the United States, the New York Times reported, but the exact conditions of that disarmament are unclear. Lt. Col. Guy Rudisill, a spokesman with the Multi-National Force-Iraq, which oversees the camp, said in an e-mail to United Press International that the MeK has disarmed and that its members have signed statements in which they "voluntarily rejected terrorism and violence." But Sullivan told UPI on Dec. 8 that the group has given up only its "heavy weaponry" while retaining small arms, and that its members "conduct training."

The State Department maintains that the MeK is a terrorist organization and should be identified alongside groups such as al-Qaida and Hamas. Sullivan discounted the suggestion, made by supporters of the MeK, that the group has not carried out terrorist attacks in more than 15 years.

"The argument from which we approach it is [that] this is a group that is engaged in terrorist activity. It’s been well-documented in the patterns of global terrorism," Sullivan said. "I would disagree with the characterization that they’ve been out of the business for a long time. I don’t think that’s an accurate assessment. From our standpoint — though there may be some folks out there who may find [the MeK’s] viewpoint appealing — we think it sends the wrong message in the war on terror to distinguish between ‘good terrorists’ and ‘bad terrorists.’"

On Capitol Hill, however, the MeK has received open support, including a statement made in early December by Rep. Ed Towns, D-N.Y., to the Committee for Camp Ashraf Residents, an advocacy group that works to protect the camp from Iranian reprisals. In the statement, which the committee posted on its website, Towns said, "We must take meaningful steps to provide safety and security to both Iraqi[s] and PMOI members in Iraq."

Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., has also expressed support for the MEK in the past and has said that the Clinton administration only added the group’s name to the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations in the first place to "curry favor with the Iranian regime," according to news sources.

Repeated calls to Towns’ offices in Brooklyn and Washington concerning the MeK were not returned; nor did Tancredo return a call.

Although Towns and Tancredo have publicly expressed support for the MeK, the two representatives are far from alone on Capitol Hill, according to a second State Department official, who asked not to be identified.

"There are about 100 members of Congress that, believe it or not, find the MeK useful," the official told UPI.

At the Pentagon, meanwhile, the Defense Department does not openly support the MeK, but views the organization as "protected persons under the Fourth Geneva Convention," according to Mark Ballesteros, a spokesman who was not authorized to provide further details. Ballesteros said the determination that the MeK is entitled to protected status was made by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

The Fourth Geneva Convention guarantees a number of basic rights to MeK members in Iraq, including the right to protection from danger or violence and the right not be repatriated to Iran — where the group’s members could face torture or death — said Steven Schneebaum, counsel for the Committee for Camp Ashraf Residents.

But legal experts said the Fourth Geneva Convention does not prevent the United States from prosecuting any would-be "terrorists" at Camp Ashraf — and American authorities have not done so. The New York Times reported in 2004 that a 16-month U.S. investigation into MeK members at Camp Ashraf resulted in no prosecutions.

Now, the subject of what goes on at Camp Ashraf remains hotly contested, with conflicting reports not only about whether the MeK is completely or only partially disarmed, but also whether the group has committed human rights violations against its own members to prevent them from leaving Camp Ashraf. A Human Rights Watch report released earlier this year concluded that the MeK abused its members, but a later report by a delegation from the European Parliament called the initial findings "devoid of any truth."

While controversy surrounds Camp Ashraf and the MeK, one observer said U.S. support for the organization in its fight against the Iranian regime — whether implicit or explicit — only worsens relations between Washington and Tehran. That’s because the MeK is not an effective tool against Iran and supporting the group only subjects the United States to charges of hypocrisy in the war on terror, according to Gideon Rose, managing editor of Foreign Affairs magazine.

"Realistically, I’m not opposed [to supporting the MeK]. You could make a case that if they were extremely effective and had some realistic potential for toppling or seriously undermining the regime in Iran, it might be worth using them," Rose said. "What makes it somewhat hard to understand is that nobody actually believes that. Most serious observers don’t see [the MeK] as having any significant gains to bring to the table, except for the fact that they enrage or annoy Tehran."

By John P. Gramlich, UPI, December 22, 2005

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