International Herald Tribune | New York Times
Thursday 17 April 2003
WASHINGTON - Without public announcement, American forces have bombed the principal bases of the main armed Iranian opposition group in Iraq, which has maintained several thousand fighters with tanks and artillery along Iraq's border with Iran for more than a decade.
The group, Mujahidin Khalq, has been labeled a terrorist organization by the United States since 1997. But the biggest beneficiary of the strikes will be the Iranian government, which has lost scores of soldiers in recent years to cross-border attacks by the guerrillas, who have sought to overthrow Iran's clerical regime.
At the same time, the attacks appear bound to anger the scores of more than 150 members of the U.S. Congress who have described the Iranian opposition group as an organized and effective pressure point on Iran's government, and had urged the Bush administration to strike the organization from its terrorist list.
In the months leading up to the war, "We made it very clear that these folks are pro-democracy, anti-fundamentalism, anti-terrorism, helpful to the U.S. in providing information about the activities of the Iranian regime, and advocates of a secular government in Iran," said Yleem Poblete, staff director for the House International Relations Committee's subcommittee on the Middle East and Asia.
"They are our friends, not our enemies. And right now, they are the most organized alternative to the Iranian regime, and the fact that they are the main target of the Iranian regime says a lot about their effectiveness."
Defense Department officials who described the air attacks said they have been followed in recent days by efforts on the ground by American forces on the ground to pursue and detain members of the group.
It was unclear whether the attacks, described by Defense Department officials, were intended in part as a gesture by the United States to thank Iran for its noninterference in the war in Iraq.
The United States does not maintain diplomatic relations with Iran, which is listed on the Bush administration's "axis of evil," but American officials are believed to have met secretly with Iranian officials in the months before the war to urge Iran's government to maintain its neutrality.
A top military officer who spoke on condition of anonymity said the United States had "bombed the heck" out of at least two of the group's bases, including one about 130 kilometers (80 miles) northeast of Baghdad. The officer said the fact that the group had been listed as a terrorist organization by the United States gave the military little alternative but to launch the strikes.
In a telephone interview from Paris, Mohammad Mohaddessin, a top official of a coalition of Iranian opposition groups that includes Mujahidin Khalq, condemned the bombing as bombing "an astonishing and regrettable act. It is a clear kowtowing to the demands of the Iranian regime," said Mohaddessin, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
Mohaddessin said the group had abandoned its bases in southern Iraq before the American attack began, and had been assured by "proper U.S. authorities" that its other camps, located northeast and east of Baghdad, would not be targets of American bombing.
An expert on Iran, Patrick Clawson, said Wednesday that the American attacks almost certainly represented an end to the group as a fighting force, after the years in which it operated freely from Iraq with support from Saddam Hussein. Clawson, research director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the attack might also weaken the group's political arm, the National Council on Resistance in Iran.
"The reason the regime has been so worried about the MEK has been the impression that it could be attractive to those who are rejecting the regime," Clawson said, using the group's initials. "It's now less likely that the MEK will maintain this image in the eyes of young Iranians as being the most radical opponents."
Mujahidin Khalq was formed in the 1960s and expelled from Iran after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Its primary financial support in recent years came from Saddam's government, but it has support from lawmakers in Europe as well as the United States.
In its most recent annual listing of terrorist groups, the State Department said of the group that "its history is studded with anti-Western attacks as well as terrorist attacks on the interests of the clerical regime in Iran and abroad."
During the 1970s, the report noted, Mujahidin Khalq killed several American military personnel and American civilians working on defense projects in Tehran, the Iranian capital.
The decision by the Clinton administration to add the group to its list of terrorist organizations was widely interpreted as a goodwill gesture to the Iranian government, and its president, Mohammed Khatami, a more moderate force than Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Group calls for protests
An exiled Iranian opposition group said Wednesday that it would hold marches in Washington and across Europe on Saturday to protest against attacks on its bases in Iraq that it said killed 28 of its members, Reuters reported from Stockholm.
The Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran, political wing of the Mujahidin Khalq, plans marches at noon local time in London, Washington, Paris, Cologne, Brussels, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Oslo.
Leaders of the group said 28 people had been killed, 43 wounded and others captured in the attacks, reported to have occurred last Thursday and Friday.
The group began as leftist-Islamist opposition to the late Shah of Iran but fell out with Shiite clerics who took power after the 1979 Islamic revolution.
It uses Iraq as a springboard for attacks in Iran and was accused by Washington, which brands it a "terrorist" group, of supporting Saddam Hussein before his fall. The group is said by Western analysts to have little support in Iran because of its collaboration with Iraq during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.
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