This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
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And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.
We're about to bring you up to date on a group that's called a terrorist organization or even a cult. It's called those things but it's under the protection of the U.S. military. It's a group of Iranians. They want to overthrow Iran's government and they are in exile right now in Iraq.
We're going to hear this morning from both sides of the border about one of the stranger stories to emerge from the war. The story centers around the Iranian exiles who call themselves the People's Mujahideen, or MEK. Their U.S.-protected camp is called Camp Ashraf.
NPR's Anne Garrels begins with the story of one woman who escaped them.
ANNE GARRELS: Last spring after living in Camp Ashraf for half her life, 40-year-old Batul Soltani made a run for it. She fled to the nearby American military compound. Though U.S. soldiers protect Ashraf from outside attacks, Batul says they do nothing to stop the MEK from continuing to persecute its members.
Ms. BATUL SOLTANI (Former Member, MEK): (Through translator) The MEK leadership remains in control in the camp and we had no choice but to stay. We were under psychological and physical pressure. The U.S. does nothing inside Ashraf. They allow the MEK to terrorize the inmates.
GARRELS: Until the U.S. invasion, the MEK carried out cross-border attacks against the government in Tehran. It also helped Saddam Hussein target his enemies at home. The new Iraqi government made up of those former enemies has no love for the MEK. After the U.S. invasion, American soldiers disarmed the militants and set up checkpoints around the camp to protect its members from Iraqi retribution.
Some in the Bush administration and Congress believe the MEK could be a useful ally against the Iranian government, though U.S. officials say that view is no longer widely held. They and the Iraqi government would like the militants at Camp Ashraf to leave the country. A few hundred have fled but Batul says most cult members cannot act freely, either because they've been brainwashed or because of MEK pressure.
Ms. SOLTANI: (Through translator) I never saw the Red Cross or American soldiers inside the camp. The MEK leadership manipulates anyone who comes in so they see only what they want them to see.
GARRELS: Recruited in Tehran as a teenager, Batul says her dreams of overthrowing the Iranian government turned into a nightmare. Once she and her young husband arrived in Ashraf, all couples were ordered to divorce. Her children were taken away.
Ms. SOLTANI: (Through translator) My son was six months old and my daughter was five. They said you can't keep your children here. We will send them overseas to Europe. I have not seen my children in 16 years.
GARRELS: MEK commanders also took away the members' documents and warned them they would be arrested by Saddam's security if they tried to leave. Then after the U.S. invasion, Batul says MEK leaders warned them the Americans would kill anyone who left.
Batul says she stayed on hoping if she were a dutiful member she would eventually be reunited with both her children and her husband. Finally a year ago she stole a car, made a dash for a U.S. checkpoint, and was given refuge by the American military. She's now searching for her children.
Ms. SOLTANI: (Through translator) I am asking Iranians all over the world if they know anything about my children. The Mujahideen won't tell me where they are.
GARRELS: Defectors say the Mujahideen keep those wishing to leave out of sight. Asghar Farzin says he was one of the lucky ones. An American colonel during an initial search of Ashraf five years ago discovered him by chance in an MEK prison.
Mr. ASGHAR FARZIN (MEK Defector): One day someone knocked my door. I saw American commander because I can explain for him in English, he sat next to me and listened to me.
GARRELS: With the help of the American officer and the Red Cross, he was able to leave Ashraf. But he says others still there need help and counseling.
Though they acknowledge a significant number of cult members are trapped, U.S. officials speaking on background say it's not safe for American soldiers to go into the camp. U.S. and U.N. officials say they cannot force members to go back to Iran against their wishes. But the U.N. has not found other countries willing to take them. The clock is ticking.
Under a new status of forces agreement, the Iraqi government will likely take control of Ashraf by the end of the year. Caught at the end of a press conference, General Douglas Stone, who's currently in charge of Ashraf, made it clear he would like this mess to go away. He said it's going to be discussed with the Iraqis, adding, things like this don't go on forever, right? But after five years he still has no solution.
Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Iran's government has regarded Camp Ashraf warily, but some Iranians are helping MEK members get back home. NPR's Mike Shuster reports from Tehran.
MIKE SHUSTER: Like Batul Soltani and thousands of others, Arash Sametipour could've been trapped in Camp Ashraf all these years. He joined the MEK in the 1990s, and in 2001 he was sent from Iraq into Iran to assassinate an Iranian general. The plot failed, he lost his right hand in a grenade explosion and was imprisoned in Iran.
Now he runs the Nejat Society in Tehran, a non-governmental group that helps former members of the MEK who want to get out of the organization. Recently Sametipour was in Baghdad to meet with some of them, who he agrees are in an impossible situation.
Mr. ARASH SAMETIPOUR: Since these people, they did not have any legal documents and the situation in Iraq was really critical for them, we decided to provide them any humanitarian help that we could, and I think we were successful in that point.
SHUSTER: Of the MEK militants in Camp Ashraf, more than 200 have left the camp on their own and have been living in the transitional camp the U.S. set up nearby. These people, Sametipour says, want to leave the MEK but don't necessarily want to return to Iran.
Iran's government still views the MEK as a threat and wants to see the group disbanded, according to Ali Resaid(ph), the director of the North America department of Iran's foreign ministry.
Mr. ALI RESAID (Iranian Foreign Ministry): They are a very serious and very dangerous terrorist group and it is recognized by European and even the U.S. government.
SHUSTER: Iran's government would like to take custody of the leaders of the MEK and put them on trial, says Sametipour.
Mr. SAMETIPOUR: They were involved in brainwashing process and terrorist operations inside Iran. Iranian authorities have announced that these people must be prosecuted in Iran. I think a list of 50 to 60 people are there who Iranians want them. They want them to be prosecuted.
SHUSTER: But it is the position of the Iranian government that the vast majority of those who live in Camp Ashraf are free to return to Iran without punishment, says Ali Resaid.
Mr. RESAID: For those of them who have repentance of their activities, also those of them who are not seriously involved with any assassination or these sort of things, we have amnesty for them.
SHUSTER: The Nejat Society has tested Iran's offer of amnesty. Arash Sametipour says his group has helped repatriate several hundred former MEK members, and he says they are now living normal lives in Iran.
Mr. SAMETIPOUR: Right after fall of Saddam Hussein, Iranian government had announced officially that there is an amnesty for those who are willing to return home. We have talked to many authorities over here and this is a truth that, you know, when they come back over here to Iran there won't be any prison waiting for them. They can just live like any other citizen.
SHUSTER: When Sametipour was in Iraq recently he concluded that the U.S. is not really sure what it wants to do with those in Camp Ashraf. Some in the U.S. government, he fears, may still be tempted to use them as a bargaining chip with Iran.
That may also be the case between the government of Iran and Iraq. The issue was on the agenda when Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, traveled to Baghdad in early March for talks with Iraq's president, Jalal Talibani. Iraq's government may simply take custody of these people if they are released by the U.S. In that case their fate may figure significantly in the future of relations between Iraq and Iran.