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U.S. Forces Besiege Iran Group's Camp

Despite an April truce, the Moujahedeen Khalq reportedly has held on to its armed role in Iraq.

May 10, 2003|From Associated Press

CAMP ASHRAF, Iraq — The U.S. Army surrounded a camp of an Iranian opposition group in eastern Iraq on Friday, pointing tanks at its sentinels and demanding that it lay down arms or "be destroyed."

Surrender negotiations between U.S. officials and the Moujahedeen Khalq continued past nightfall with no apparent resolution, though the Americans appeared confident of an agreement.

The confrontation came about 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 Saddam Hussein's Iraq regime, poses a potential challenge to the U.S.-led forces' authority in Iraq, and American 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 make up Camp Ashraf, the group's headquarters. U.S. officials said thousands of Moujahedeen Khalq fighters were inside.

Under the truce, the group could keep its weapons to defend itself against Iranian-backed attacks but had to stop operating checkpoints it had set up.

At the time, the U.S. State Department called the agreement "a prelude to the group's surrender."

But reports of roadblock confrontations involving the group in recent days suggested that it had continued playing an active, armed role in the region. U.S. military commanders "don't want two armed forces in the area," Capt. Josh Felker said.

Still, he indicated that the standoff with the group -- listed by the United States as a terrorist organization since the 1990s -- could be resolved peacefully.

The Moujahedeen Khalq was negotiating with Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of the Army's 4th Infantry Division.

More negotiations were planned for Sunday morning, but the Army wouldn't comment further about whether Friday's talks produced any progress.

The choices for the group appeared bleak. U.S. military talking points gave the following guidance: Moujahedeen Khalq "forces will be destroyed or compelled to surrender, leading to disarmament and detention."

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