Wednesday, October 06, 2004

news 4

news 4: "Future of Iran opposition group held in Iraq hangs in balance
by MOHSEN ASGARI and GARETH SMYTH

A leading Iraqi politician reassured Iran this week that some 4,000 members of an Iranian opposition group detained by US forces in Iraq as prisoners of war had been recategorised by the new Iraqi government as refugees.

The reclassification could facilitate their repatriation to Iran, where they face an uncertain fate. The return of the Iranian opponents is being sought by Tehran but might be resisted by parts of the US administration.

Abdulaziz Hakim, leader of one of Iraq's leading Shia Muslim parties, said he expected the new Iraqi government to expel the members of the group, known as the Mujahidin-e Khalq (MEK).

However, US treatment of the group, which is listed as a "foreign terrorist organisation" by the State Department, has been shrouded in secrecy.

Iran's leadership wants to try the MEK's leaders for attacks that have killed hundreds of Iranian officials and badly wounded Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, then president and now supreme leader, in a 1981 bombing.

When US forces overran the MEK's three camps inside Iraq last year, they impounded the group's Iraqi-supplied heavy weapons - including tanks - and gathered 4,000 members in camp Ashraf, the group's headquarters 100km north of Baghdad.

But US forces allowed MEK to maintain its own discipline and organisation - in stark contrast to conditions at detention centres such as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay - sparking speculation that the Pentagon wanted to use the group as a weapon against Iran, or as a bargaining chip to secure al-Qaeda figures held by Tehran.

Iraq's Governing Council voted last year to expel the MEK but was overruled by Paul Bremer, then the chief US administrator.

US authorities in Baghdad recently made no response to repeated Financial Times inquiries about the MEK.

A US official in Washington denied there had ever been plans in the Pentagon to "utilise MEK members in any capacity, especially as a future opposition organisation in Iran".

But a European diplomat told the FT that the Pentagon had "long toyed with the idea of using the MEK in some way against the regime in Iran".

And an adviser to a former Governing Council member suggested that those in Iraq's new government who wanted to expel the MEK had yet to win the battle.

Last year Tehran gave the US names of the senior MEK members, including its leader, Masoud Rajavi, it wants handed over, but it has also encouraged ordinary MEK members to return in peace.

Officials with the MEK in Europe have protested loudly at attempts to return any of the detained to Iran. They insist they would face torture or execution.

Rafat Yazdan-Parast of Nejat, a group established in Tehran by relatives of MEK members in Ashraf, denied this.

She said that 20 people who had returned to Iran after escaping from Ashraf had been debriefed over 24 hours by security officers at a Tehran hotel and then allowed to rejoin their families.

Kamand Ali Azizi, a man of 34 and a former MEK fighter, said he escaped from Ashraf in March: "There were towers with armed MEK guards, and an American military car doing the rounds outside the fence. We climbed the wire and then dropped, and eventually got home via Baghdad."

Mr Azizi said that 1000 of the 4000 in Ashraf were held separately by the MEK because they had expressed a wish to return to Iran.

He said the US troops at Ashraf had no name tags on their uniforms - suggesting they were special forces."