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Iraq: U.S. Forces Disarm Armed Iranian Opposition Fighters

The armed Iranian opposition group Mujahedin Khalq Organization has begun surrendering its arms to U.S. forces in Iraq. The surrender comes after American forces initially bombed, then ignored, the group, which the U.S. State Department lists as a terrorist organization. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at what may have motivated Washington's decision to now disarm the organization and what the group's future may be.

Prague, 14 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Washington says all of the Mujahedin Khalq Organizations's (MKO) fighters in Iraq will be detained by the end of this week, a move that will greatly reduce the Iranian opposition group's ability to threaten Tehran.

The U.S. military said in a statement early this week that the MKO had agreed to surrender to U.S. forces at its largest base, Ashraf, in northeastern Iraq. U.S. soldiers in the area told correspondents that, under the accord, the fighters can stay on the base, remain in uniform and keep guns for their personal protection. But they will give up their tanks, artillery, and other heavy weaponry.

U.S. officers also said the MKO will be considered "detainees" rather than prisoners of war until the status of the group can be reviewed.

The disarmament of the MKO is the latest in a series of on-again, off-again actions by the U.S. military against the group, which was directly supported by the Hussein regime and often helped it to suppress domestic enemies.

At the start of the war, U.S. planes bombed the Mujahedin's bases near the Iranian border. But almost immediately, the MKO -- which has political offices in many Western capitals, including Washington -- agreed to a cease-fire with Washington, and the U.S. military reclassified those bases as "noncombat" positions.

At the time, U.S. military spokesman General Vincent Brooks described the confusing situation of the MKO -- also known as the People's Mujahedin -- this way:

"We've had some encounters of various sorts with the People's Mujahedin. We know that there was a presence inside of Iraq and had been for some time. Initially, some of our actions involved targeting them with lethal fire. There were some movements and some negotiations that were undertaken by our coalition Special Operations forces. At this point, a cease-fire is in effect, and some of the People's Mujahedin have moved into what best can be described as assembly areas in a noncombat formation. They do have combat equipment, but in a noncombat formation."

Now, the disarmament of MKO members ends the existence of the group as an organized fighting force which, by some estimates, numbered up to 8,000 soldiers. The MKO initially participated in the 1979 ouster of the former Shah of Iran but for the past 17 years has had bases in Iraq, from which it regularly sent assassination teams against Iranian government officials.

Those forays sparked occasional retaliatory missile strikes by Tehran, heightening tensions between Iran and Hussein's Iraq. The two states also feuded over Iran's sheltering of Iraq's largest armed exile opposition group, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).

Analysts say it is not clear what prompted Washington's decision this week to finally disarm the MKO. The move comes as Tehran has repeatedly demanded Washington extradite the former fighters to Iran for trial -- something many observers say would almost certainly lead to their executions. The group is listed by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization but enjoys some support in the U.S. Congress and British Parliament for its long fight against Iran's clerical regime.

Shahram Chubin, a regional expert at the Geneva Center for Security Policy in Switzerland, says Washington may have disarmed the MKO partly because U.S. forces in Iraq will not tolerate the presence of any armed groups not directly allied with themselves.

But he says the decision also very likely reflects discussions which are reported to have been taken place between U.S. and Iranian officials several times this year in Geneva.

Chubin says the MKO now appear to have become an important playing card in U.S. and Iranian efforts to work out a way of coming to terms over Washington's war to topple Hussein and administer Iraq.

"The question really is what was agreed between the United States and Iran on their reciprocal actions in the prosecution of the war against Iraq," Chubin said. "Did the United States say to the Iranians, 'If you stay out and behave yourselves, we will disarm the Mujahedin for you,' or did they do this in an implicit way without giving any specific reassurances on either side?"

But the analyst says the ultimate fate of the MKO probably has yet to be decided. He says the Americans may watch how Iran behaves over Iraq in the coming months before making any final decision what to do with the opposition fighters.

"The question will really depend on Iran-U.S. relations in general," Chubin said. "If Iran-U.S. relations remain stable or improve, there is no reason why the Americans would give much leeway to the Mujahedin. They will disarm them, make them leave the country, basically the way the French did in the 1980s when they expelled them [from France] to Africa, and they ended up in Iraq."

He continues: "[But] if relations get bad, the Iranian regime will want to use SCIRI and other Shi'a groups in Iraq to destabilize the American presence, and at that point the Americans may want counterleverage [through the Mujahedin]."

For now, relations between Washington and Tehran over Iraq retain a high potential for problems. U.S. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer warned Tehran late last month not to interfere in Iraq by, "infiltrating agents to destabilize [Iraq's majority] Shi'a population." Iran has denied doing so.

The biggest current issue between Tehran and Washington is U.S. charges that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Many analysts predict that if Washington hotly pursues these charges in the months ahead, Iran could retaliate by creating difficulties in Iraq.

Another source of friction is American charges that Tehran is a state supporter of terrorism due to its backing of Lebanese and Palestinian groups targeting Israel. Tehran denies both charges.

Amid reports of secret meetings in Geneva to discuss Iraq, there have been some signs that the U.S. and Iran could move toward broader bilateral talks in the future. But so far, those signs have proved short-lived.

Tehran appeared to be meditating just such talks when a top conservative official recently suggested Iran could consider holding a popular referendum on what its relations with America should be. But that suggestion by Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the head of the conservative-dominated Expediency Council, was overruled this week by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Khamenei said in a speech to students on 12 May that "some prescribe the surrender of the Iranian nation to America in the face of the enemy's adventurism. But succumbing to the enemy is by no means effective."

In Washington, U.S. officials also have been quick to dampen speculation about broader talks. U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said this week that the secret talks between the Tehran government and special U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad "grew directly out of some practical matters dealing with Afghanistan...and then were extended to Iraq.... This is not somehow an opening to diplomatic relations."