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General Seeks to Allay Fears About Iran Group

U.S. commander in Iraq says thousands of Moujahedeen Khalq fighters are detained. He denies they are staging cross-border raids.

September 12, 2003|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — American forces are detaining thousands of fighters from an Iranian opposition group that the U.S. has listed as a terrorist organization, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the senior military commander in Iraq, said Thursday.

The group, known as the Moujahedeen Khalq, or MEK, has been at the center of a dispute within the Bush administration, with the State Department supporting a tough stance against it but some Pentagon officials viewing it as a way to pressure Iran.

Critics say the group is a violent sect-like organization whose ideology blends Marxism and Islam, while Western supporters have viewed it as one of the toughest opponents of the Iranian government.

There have been claims that members of the group are still armed and conducting attacks into Iran from Iraq with the acquiescence of U.S. forces.

Even in recent days, State Department officials have been warning that the Moujahedeen Khalq remained active and pressuring the Pentagon to step up action against the group.

A State Department official said in a recent interview that there was "what could almost be described as a rogue operation ... being run out of the Pentagon to keep [the organization] a live and viable anti-Iranian group."

Although the group is to be treated as a terrorist organization under U.S. policy, the American military "apparently is not really policing them at all," the official said.

He said that State Department officials learned of the continued Moujahedeen Khalq activity when U.S. intelligence reports picked up on Iranian concerns that weapons were arriving in two Moujahedeen Khalq camps, and that the group was making broadcasts into Iran.

"The only people who know the realities are in Central Command. And they get orders from the Pentagon policymakers," the official said.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher would neither confirm nor deny Thursday a report in the Washington Post that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell wrote Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld about the matter this month. Defense officials also refused to confirm or deny the report.

Boucher said the Moujahedeen Khalq's presence in Iraq "has been an ongoing subject of discussion from the beginning of the war."

"We have all agreed within this administration that ... the MEK is a terrorist organization," Boucher said. "That we're not going to allow terrorist organizations to exist or operate inside Iraq. And how we go about doing that is the subject that the Pentagon, I think, is already discussing."

Asked about those reports, Sanchez said there was no problem with the group, adding, "The MEK has been separated from their weapons systems."

"They are being detained out in the eastern part of Iraq.... We have about 3,800 MEK personnel out there," said Sanchez, who also denied that guerrillas were staging raids into Iran.

"I can guarantee you that is not happening," Sanchez said. "They are contained. We have over 500 personnel that are dedicated to guarding that compound. They are not conducting operations, I can guarantee you that.... The MEK has not been able to conduct any operations across the Iraq-Iran border."

Sanchez appeared to be speaking about the 3,800 Moujahedeen Khalq who surrendered their arms under a May agreement with U.S. forces and are under detention.

The group reportedly was much larger before the Iraq war, with estimates ranging from 6,000 to 15,000.

When asked about what happened to the other Moujahedeen Khalq fighters, Sanchez replied: "I don't know. You tell me." The fighters under detention are being screened as part of a process to determine their final status, he said.

"We should be more concerned about Iranians coming into Iraq than any alleged threat the MEK could pose" to Iran, said another U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity in Washington.

The State Department declared the Moujahedeen Khalq a terrorist organization in 1997, but the group continued to have considerable support among both Democrats and Republicans in Congress who backed its anti-Tehran stance.

Similarly, the group operated openly in France from the 1980s until June 17, when 1,300 police officers stormed a compound in Auvers-sur-Oise and arrested 159 people, including Maryam Rajavi, the group's political leader. Her husband, Massoud, is the organization's military leader. Some reports have said he was in U.S. custody in Iraq and undergoing debriefing.

An April cease-fire agreement between Moujahedeen Khalq and U.S. forces drew criticism in the United States and complaints from Iran's government, with critics charging that it marked a deal with terrorists. The group had been allied with former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and U.S. forces bombed its camps during the war.

When a new deal on disarming the group was reached in May, the Moujahedeen Khalq agreed to give up its weapons in return for guarantees of the fighters' safety. The group reportedly feared retribution both from Iranian groups and anti-Hussein forces.

The Moujahedeen Khalq was founded in the 1960s by well-educated leftists. It was believed responsible for killing several U.S. soldiers and civilians working on defense contracts in Iran in the early 1970s, when Washington was supporting the shah of Iran. 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.

The group assassinated the head of Iran's prison system in 1998, and in 2000 it killed the acting director of the Iranian army.

Times staff writers Robin Wright, Paul Richter and John Hendren in Washington contributed to this report.

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