The U.S. State Department has released a report charging Iran's armed opposition movement with helping Iraqi President Saddam Hussein crack down on his domestic rivals. The Iranian armed opposition, the Mujahedin Khalq, is reported to perform the security services in exchange for Baghdad giving it bases inside Iraq. RFE/RL looks at the charges and at the role of the Mujahedin Khalq in the region.
Prague, 23 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Washington says that Iran's armed opposition, the Mujahedin Khalq (MEK), is helping Baghdad conduct domestic security operations in exchange for the use of Iraqi bases.
The U.S. State Department said in its "Patterns of Global Terrorism 2001" report released this week that in 1991, the MEK "assisted the government of Iraq in suppressing the Shiaa and Kurdish uprisings in northern and southern Iraq. Since then, the MEK has continued to perform internal security services for the government of Iraq."
The charges against the MEK make official what have been long-standing U.S. suspicions that the group plays a part in Iraq's domestic security affairs. Reuters quoted a U.S. State Department official, who asked not to be identified, as saying that Washington had suspicions about the MEK's security role in Iraq in the past and was able to confirm the facts in the course of the last year. He said that, "it is now in the realm of certitude."
The MEK has dismissed the State Department report, saying the charges mimic similar accusations that have long been made against it by Tehran. Reuters quoted representatives of the group as calling the charges "lies that the mullahs' regime [Tehran] has repeated a thousand times."
Regional observers say similar charges that Baghdad uses the MEK and other non-Iraqi groups to help crack down on domestic threats have long circulated in Iraq. Some Kurdish and Shiite commander who fought against Baghdad in the Kurdish and Shiite uprisings in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War say they personally fought against such units.
Kamran al-Karadaghi, deputy director of Radio Free Iraq, recalls speaking in 1993 to Kurdish commanders who fought with Baghdad for control of the northern city of Kirkuk. He said several of them said they had engaged MEK units.
"They [said they] were stopped before reaching Kirkuk by a group that they said was from the Mujahedin Khalq and that was very well-equipped...and they engaged in a fight and the Kurds lost a few fighters. The Kurdish commander of that unit said that he actually met with the commander of the Mujahedin group and tried to convince him [unsuccessfully] that they had no reason to be fighting each other," al-Karadaghi said.
Al-Karadaghi said that Shiite resistance commanders also reported combat with MEK units, as well as units of Palestinian fighters based in Iraq through agreements with Saddam's government. He said that if the reports are true, the reason Baghdad uses the foreign fighters in its security operations would be to assert control over them by tying them closely to the regime.
"The Iraqis tend to tie all these groups to their regime. They use them, even though they have enough of their own government forces but still they use them. Many times we hear statements from Iraqi Shiite [armed opposition] groups that, when their own Islamic resistance units attack some Iraqi security targets in Baghdad, immediately afterward, Mujahedin Khalq elements took charge of that area and tried to maintain security and order," al-Karadaghi said.
In the past, charges of close links between the Iranian armed opposition group and Baghdad have come not only from Iraqi opposition groups but also from high-level Iraqi government defectors.
A former major general in Iraqi military intelligence, Wafik al Samara'ai, told the London-based "Jane's Intelligence Review" in July 2001 that MEK commanders and Iraqi officials hold regular meetings and that the group receives substantial funding from Iraq, as well as from Iranians abroad.
The former Iraqi intelligence officer said that "all communication between the MEK and the Iraqi government goes through the Iran desk of the intelligence services, which consists of about 50 officers." He also said that "even after the Gulf War, the MEK was receiving around $7 million a month from Baghdad."
"Jane's Intelligence Review" says that the MEK has an estimated 6,000 fighters in Iraq, is headquartered in Baghdad and has a number of bases around the country. Its equipment is reported to include tanks, heavy guns, and helicopters passed to it by the Iraqi military.
Iraq has hosted the MEK since 1987 as part of Baghdad's continuing tense relations with Iran following the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Tehran responds in kind by hosting the largest armed Iraqi Shiite opposition movement, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Resistance in Iraq.
Analysts say the two countries host each other's armed oppositions in order to exert pressure in bilateral disputes. Iran and Iraq have yet to restore diplomatic relations since their conflict and each accuses the other of still holding prisoners of war.
As Iraq and Iran allow the opposition groups to launch cross-border operations from their territories, the groups' activities have at times caused tensions between the two states to reach dangerous levels.
In June 1999, Iraq said Iran fired three long-range missiles at the Mujahedin's Camp Ashraf and the Mujahedin reported some Iraqi civilian casualties in a nearby village. The crisis, fueled by further Mujahedin operations in Iran and new Iranian reprisals, eased only after Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi visited Baghdad at the end of 2000, and both states said they wanted to work for better relations.
The MEK was formed by Islamic leftists who supported the 1979 revolution that toppled the Shah but soon broke with revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and initiated a guerrilla campaign against his government. The group, whose ideology combines Marxism with Islamic ideas of a classless society, says it wants to replace the Iranian government with its own brand of democratic government.
The group has long been considered by many governments -- including the U.S. and Britain -- as a terrorist organization. Washington accuses the MEK of engaging in terrorist violence by assassinating scores of Iranian officials over the past decades. The European Union also decided earlier this month to put the organization on a list of terrorist groups.