The New York Times
April 17, 2003
WASHINGTON, April 16 — American forces have bombed the bases of the main armed Iranian opposition group in Iraq, a guerrilla organization that maintained thousands of fighters with tanks and artillery along Iraq’s border with Iran for more than a decade.
The group, the Mujahedeen Khalq, has been labeled a terrorist organization by the United States since 1997, and Bush administration officials said the group had supported Saddam Hussein’s military. Still, the biggest beneficiary of the strikes will be the Iranian government, which has lost scores of soldiers in recent years to cross-border attacks by the guerrillas seeking to overthrow Iran’s Islamic government.
Defense department officials who described the air attacks, which have received scant public attention, said they had been followed in recent days by efforts by American ground forces to pursue and detain members of the group and its National Liberation Army. Some members of the group were expected to surrender soon, the officials said today.
A senior American military officer said the United States had “bombed the heck” out of at least two of the Mujahedeen group’s bases, including its military headquarters at Camp Ashraf, about 60 miles north of Baghdad.
The only public acknowledgment of the attacks came on Tuesday, when Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with foreign reporters. In answer to a question, General Myers acknowledged bombing some camps, and said that American forces were “still pursuing elements” of the group inside Iraq.
“We’re still interested in that particular group,” he said. “How that will affect U.S.-Iranian relationships, I think we’re going to have to wait until more time goes by.”
The attacks could well anger the more than 150 members of Congress from both parties who have described the Iranian opposition group as an effective source of pressure against Iran’s government. In a statement last November, the group urged the Bush administration to remove the organization from its terrorist list.
“We made it very clear that these folks are pro-democracy, antifundamentalism, antiterrorism, helpful to the U.S. in providing information about the activities of the Iranian regime, and advocates of a secular government in Iran,” said Yleem Poblete, staff director for the House International Relations Committee’s subcommittee on the Middle East and Asia.
“They are our friends, not our enemies,” she said. “The fact that they are the main target of the Iranian regime says a lot about their effectiveness.”
It was not clear today whether the attacks were intended in any way as a thank-you gesture by the United States for Iran’s policy of noninterference in the war in Iraq.
At the White House and elsewhere, senior administration officials said today that the group had been bombed because its forces served as an extension of the Iraqi military and as a de facto security force for the old Iraqi government.
“These forces were fully integrated with Saddam Hussein’s command and controls and therefore constituted legitimate military targets that posed a threat to coalition forces,” a White House official said. A second administration official said that the attacks had not been intended as a gesture to the Iranian government, calling the camps “a logical and rational military target.”
Still, the Bush administration has expressed relief at what it has generally described as Iran’s path of noninterference in the American war in Iraq. American officials are believed to have met secretly with Iranian officials in the months before the war to urge Iran’s government to maintain its neutrality.
In a telephone interview from Paris, Mohammad Mohaddessin, a top official of an Iranian opposition coalition that includes the Mujahedeen, confirmed that the bases had been attacked by the United States in what he called “an astonishing and regrettable act.”
“It is a clear kowtowing to the demands of the Iranian regime,” said Mr. Mohaddessin.
Last August, a senior Iranian official, Mohsen Rezai, a former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, was quoted by the official Iranian news service as urging American attacks on the group’s bases.
“If the Americans spare the Mujahedeen’s bases in Iraq during their general attacks on Iraq, then it shows a clear bias in their approach to terrorism,” Mr. Rezai was quoted as saying. “On the other hand, if the Americans attack the Mujahedeen bases, this would in turn be considered a goodwill gesture toward us.”
In a 1996 visit to one of the group’s bases, a reporter saw evidence of a formidable force with an arsenal that included American-made armored personnel carriers and Chieftain tanks from Britain, secured from raids deep inside Iran in 1988.
In addition to Camp Ashraf, the group has two other bases in the general vicinity of Baghdad: Camp Alavi, near the city of Miqdadiyah, about 65 miles northeast of Baghdad; and Camp Anzali, near the city of Jalula, about 80 miles northeast of Baghdad, and about 20 miles from the Iranian border. At least one of those bases was also hit in the American strikes, officials of the group said.
Recent estimates by the United States government have put the Mujahedeen Khalq at “several thousand fighters,” nearly all of them based in Iraq.
Mr. Mohaddessin, the opposition official, said the group had abandoned four bases in southern Iraq before the American attack began, to demonstrate that it did not intend to interfere with American military operations. He said the group had been assured by “proper U.S. authorities” that its other camps would not be targets.
Mr. Mohaddessin declined to provide detailed information about the timing and extent of the American attacks, but he said there had been repeated air strikes. In recent days, he said, they had been followed by cross-border attacks on the group’s fighters inside Iraq by Iranian forces, in which he said at least 28 of the organization’s guerrillas had been killed.
Mr. Mohaddessin said hundreds of Iranian soldiers were now operating in Iraq, but offered no evidence to corroborate that claim.
The Mujahedeen Khalq was formed in the 1960’s and expelled from Iran after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. In its most recent annual listing of terrorist groups, the State Department said of the group that “its history is studded with anti-Western attacks as well as terrorist attacks on the interests of the clerical regime in Iran and abroad.” During the 1970’s, the report noted, the group killed several American military personnel and civilians working in Iran.
The decision by the Clinton administration to add the group to its list of terrorist organizations in 1997 was widely interpreted as a goodwill gesture to the Iranian government.