Pledge to Target the Group Was Made Early to Assure Tehran of War’s Benefits
The Wall Street Journal
April 17, 2004
By DAVID S. CLOUD
WASHINGTON — In a move to persuade Iran not to meddle in Iraq, U.S. forces have bombed the camps of Iranian opposition fighters on the Iraqi side of the border and have reached a surrender agreement with the group’s remaining fighters, U.S. officials said.
The dismantling of the Iranian opposition force in Iraq, known as the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, or MEK, fulfills a private U.S. assurance conveyed to Iranian officials before the start of hostilities that the group would be targeted by British and American forces if Iran stayed out of the fight, according to U.S. officials. The effort was part of broader strategy aimed at reassuring Tehran that the war in neighboring Iraq held out the prospect of benefits, the officials said.
Eliminating the MEK’s Iraqi base of operations, from which the group has mounted hit-and-run operations along the border and violent terrorist attacks in Tehran for decades, has long been a major Iranian goal.
The U.S. has designated the MEK as a terrorist organization, which is another reason for disarming it, officials said. By carrying out the strikes, Washington and London are trying to keep Iran neutral or at least not actively opposed to broader U.S. aims in Iraq.
Although Tehran denounced the invasion and even lobbed artillery and rocket shells into Iraq in recent weeks, bombing the MEK camps has removed one justification for Iranian forces to mount incursions into Iraq. Still, U.S. officials remain concerned about less-conspicuous efforts by Iran to impede reconstruction efforts, using allies among the Iraqi Shiites in the south.
The capitulation agreement signed in recent days by MEK commanders requires the group’s forces, which once numbered more than 6,000 fighters, to move within 48 hours to the Iraqi town of Baqubah, northeast of Baghdad, according to U.S. officials. U.S. officials say it is too early to know whether all of the MEK fighters would comply.
The agreement also specifies the vehicles that survived the brief but intense bombing will be turned over to coalition forces. Earlier this month, U.S. forces hit some of the group’s roughly 200 tanks and armored personnel carriers in camps northeast and south of Baghdad.
Worried about appearing to attack the MEK on Tehran’s behalf, U.S. military commanders have justified the bombing of MEK camps as necessary for protecting U.S. troops. In an interview last week, Vice Adm. Timothy Keating said the MEK units were targeted because the U.S. had reason to think they might fight on Baghdad’s behalf. Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, confirmed Tuesday that the U.S. had bombed the MEK and said “some of them may surrender very soon.”
Mohammad Mohadessin, an official with MEK’s political arm, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, called the U.S. airstrikes on MEK camps “astounding and regrettable.” The strikes caused casualties, but he didn’t have details.
Before the war, the group had moved its units from camps in the south to other camps near the towns of Khalis and Miqdadiyah, northeast of Baghdad. The U.S. had attacked those locations even though the Iranian forces “had not fired a bullet at the coalition forces,” he said. “These bombs were dropped as a result of the request of the Iranian regime.” The organization accused Iranian Revolutionary Guards of crossing into Iraq and attacking its units.
Reporters who have visited the MEK’s headquarters compound in the Iraqi town of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, in recent days report that it is deserted, except for armed looters roaming the facility. Several buildings were destroyed, possibly by U.S. bombs.
U.S. Bombs Iranian Fighters On Iraqi Side of the Border
The decision to inform Tehran that the U.S. intended to attack the MEK was a controversial one within the Bush administration, according to one official involved. Some hard-liners who favor isolating Tehran said that it shouldn’t be given any warning and that the U.S. should announce that any fighters from Iran who entered Iraq during hostilities would face attack.
But National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell contended that Tehran could be persuaded to remain neutral toward the U.S. invasion next door, especially if it knew the MEK would be attacked and prevented from harassing Iran in the future, the official said.
That message was conveyed by British officials before hostilities began. Foreign Minister Jack Straw informed his Iranian counterpart Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi in a meeting in London in February.
Britain’s Iranian Ambassador Richard Dalton repeated the message in March in a meeting with Hassan Rowhani, the cleric who heads the Supreme National Security Council, Iran’s chief foreign policy-making body.
The U.S. doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Tehran, but the Bush administration used international forums, including a United Nations meeting on Afghanistan, to inform the Iranians of the plan. U.S. officials also warned that Iran shouldn’t let fighters from the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, an anti-Saddam Hussein group of Iraqi Shiites supported and given refuge by Tehran, cross into Iraq. If that happened, they warned, the fighters would be struck, just as the MEK forces were.
Iran has announced it will grant amnesty to any MEK fighter who returns to Iran as long as authorities don’t have “private complaints” against the individual. According to Iran’s official news organization, IRNA, more than 100 MEK fighters have accepted the offer. Others have fled to Jordan.