State Questions Military Tolerance of Iranian Dissidents

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 11, 2003
 
The State Department has expressed concern to the Pentagon that the U.S. military appears to have allowed an Iraq-based Iranian opposition group to continue its activities against the Iranian government, including crossing into Iran to conduct attacks, despite an order from President Bush that the group be disarmed, administration officials said yesterday.

Four months ago, after heavy pressure from the State Department, Bush ordered U.S. military forces to surround the group's camps along the Iraq-Iran border and to force the group to give up its arms. But administration officials said the Pentagon has allowed the group to retain its weapons, come and go from the camps at will and use camp facilities to broadcast propaganda into Iran.

In the past week, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell wrote Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld about the matter after lower-level State Department officials were unable to get answers from their counterparts at the Pentagon, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Powell's note cited reports that the group, known as the Mujaheddin-e Khalq (MEK), enjoyed wide freedom to continue their operations. The note also mentioned that intercepts of Iranian government communications indicated the Mujaheddin continued to pose problems for the government in Tehran.

The State Department has officially designated the Mujaheddin as a terrorist group. The Mujaheddin has been campaigning for several decades to overthrow the Iranian government, and since 1987 it has been based in Iraq with the backing of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.

"It's unbelievable," one State Department official said. "It's a pretty cushy arrangement for a terrorist organization. But the Pentagon continues to see them as useful, and they seem to be playing a waiting game until the policy toward the MEK changes."

Last night, a White House official said, "The MEK is being treated as a terrorist organization. That was the guidance issued by the Department of Defense to the field. Recently, the Department of Defense has come to believe that guidance has not been fully implemented."

The official said that a plan is being implemented to fulfill the original guidance "in accordance with resources available," and that senior policymakers are aware of the plan.

Pentagon spokesman Larry DiRita said the commanders in the field are "balancing the execution of the guidance with the priorities they have out there." But he said the "premise is inaccurate" that DOD is not trying to faithfully fulfill the administration's policy toward the MEK.

Earlier this month, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the senior military commander in Iraq, indicated that the Mujaheddin had not been disarmed and still had the ability to slip across the Iranian border. He said at a news conference that additional foreign troops may be necessary "if you want to establish 100 percent control of the borders. . . . We have a couple of other groups that are out there looming, like MEK, that might have to get resolved at some point in time."

The struggle over the Mujaheddin-e Khalq has mirrored a larger battle within the administration over policy toward Iran, and also sheds light on the ongoing policy rivalry between the State and Defense Departments. Some State Department officials have pressed for a thaw in relations with Iran, only to meet stiff resistance from Pentagon and White House officials.

Before Bush ordered the group disarmed, some Pentagon officials had suggested that the exile group could serve as a proxy force against Iranians who have moved across the border into southern Iraq and at least would make the Iranian government worried about U.S. intentions in the region.

The group, also known as the People's Mujaheddin, has maintained for the past decade thousands of fighters armed with tanks, armored vehicles and artillery in three camps northeast of Baghdad along the Iraq-Iran border. But the State Department believed that the United States could not condone its existence in the midst of fighting a war against terrorism.

Despite the group's terrorist designation, the political arm of the group has for years maintained an office in Washington and held frequent news conferences to call attention to allegations that Iran has a secret nuclear weapons program. Last month, Powell ordered the office shut down and its assets seized, a move that won rare praise from the Iranian government.

In January, before the war against Iraq was launched, U.S. officials held a secret meeting with Iranian officials and suggested the United States would target the People's Mujaheddin as a way of gaining Iran's cooperation to seal its border and provide assistance to search-and-rescue missions for downed U.S. pilots during the war. In early April, U.S. forces bombed the Mujaheddin camps, killing about 50 people, according to the group, before a cease-fire was arranged on April 15. That was during a period of growing alarm within the administration about spreading Iranian influence among Iraqi Shiites.

The cease-fire convinced the Iranian government it had been double-crossed on the issue of the Mujaheddin. But within weeks, Bush's senior policy advisers reversed course and ordered U.S. forces to disarm the group, secretly telling Iranian officials even before action was taken on May 9.

Since then, however, relations with Iran have soured over continuing revelations about its nuclear program and allegations that it harbors al Qaeda leaders implicated in the May 13 bombings of residential compounds in Saudi Arabia. After the bombings, U.S. officials suspended the secret talks with Iranian officials.