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Iranian Fighters Based in Iraq Begin to Disarm

May 12, 2003|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

AL KHALIS, Iraq — A heavily armed Iranian opposition group that the U.S. has listed as a terrorist organization began handing over its weapons to U.S. troops in eastern Iraq on Sunday in exchange for security guarantees.

Under a deal reached Saturday, the several thousand members of Moujahedeen Khalq have seven days to relinquish all heavy weapons and equipment and turn themselves in. Members of the organization, which was backed by Saddam Hussein, also have agreed to be interviewed by intelligence officials.

"When finally accomplished, the peaceful resolution of this process ... will significantly contribute to a safe and secure environment for the people of Iraq," the U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar, said in a statement.

"Coalition forces are ensuring the security of" the Moujahedeen Khalq, Central Command said. The group fears retribution from Iranian groups as well as anti-Hussein forces.

Moujahedeen Khalq's capitulation comes less than a month after U.S. forces agreed to a cease-fire with the group, which is known by the initials MEK. That agreement, which let the group retain its weapons, drew criticism from Iran and sparked controversy in Washington.

Calling the cease-fire "a severe blow to America's prestige," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said last week that the deal "showed that the administration is not honest when it talked about terrorism."

Some U.S. officials have questioned the propriety of agreeing to a cease-fire with Moujahedeen Khalq, whose members have killed U.S. citizens.

But others argued that the U.S. should support the group, which has long opposed the Iranian government labeled by President Bush as part of an "axis of evil." And because Moujahedeen Khalq worked closely with Hussein's government, it may be a source of information on both the former Iraqi regime as well as on Iran.

It was unclear Sunday why the U.S. had struck a new agreement with Moujahedeen Khalq.

Although the cease-fire allowed the group to keep its weapons, the deal required it to stop operating checkpoints between its five main bases and the Iranian border. Reports have circulated here in Al Khalis, 30 miles north of Baghdad where the group has a camp, that the Moujahedeen Khalq raised the ire of Army officials by again setting up the checkpoints to monitor traffic along the border. Those reports, however, could not be confirmed.

The move to disarm Moujahedeen Khalq began Friday, when the U.S. sent tanks, armored personnel carriers and hundreds of troops to surround its compounds.

Army Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno of the 4th Infantry Division met that day with the group's secretary-general, Central Command said, and less than 24 hours later the group agreed to a new set of rules.

Members will be allowed to retain small arms for personal protection and wear their dark-green uniforms but otherwise will have little say over their activities for the foreseeable future.

By most definitions, the new agreement amounts to a surrender, but U.S. military officials have declined to call it that. Central Command dubbed the development "the voluntary consolidation of MEK forces."

At a U.S. Army base near one of the group's camps Sunday, Capt. Josh Felker, an Army spokesman, said, "This is not a surrender, it's a disarmament process. The MEK was never fighting coalition forces."

Founded in the 1960s by well-educated leftists, Moujahedeen Khalq is considered the largest and most violent group of exiles seeking to undermine the Iranian government.

In the early 1970s, with the group angry about U.S. support of the pro-Western shah of Iran, members of a Moujahedeen Khalq faction killed several U.S. soldiers and civilians working on defense contracts in the country. The group also supported and possibly aided the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, during which 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days.

In the 1980s, most of the group's members, including leader Maryam Rajavi and her husband, head of the military branch of the group, were forced into exile, and the group based itself in Paris. In 1986, the group found a new home in Iraq and set up bases to make cross-border raids into Iran.

In 1992, the organization carried out nearly simultaneous attacks against Iranian installations in 13 countries, demonstrating its international reach. In 1998, the group assassinated the head of Iran's prison system, and in 2000 it killed the acting director of the Iranian army.

On Sunday, the group's fighters declined to speak to reporters and asked that their pictures not be taken for fear that relatives in Iran would face retribution from the government.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Abrams tanks that had surrounded the camps Friday turned their barrels around and were protecting the sites.

"They are a very respected fighting force, and as such we are treating them" courteously, Felker said. "Even though they are recognized as a terrorist organization, basically we don't want to disrespect them. Coalition forces will not allow any other forces to occupy Iraq at this time."

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