MARINE COMBAT HEADQUARTERS, Iraq—An Iranian exile group long protected by Saddam Hussein's regime has agreed to surrender to U.S. forces, raising a difficult question about whether its members will be sent back to Iran.
The Mujahedeen e-Khalk (MEK) did not fight U.S. troops during the recent war. But it did kill several U.S. military personnel in Iran in the 1970s and later staged terrorist attacks on the Islamic regime there. The State Department has placed it on the list of international terrorism organizations.
The surrender raises tricky questions. Under the Geneva Conventions, if MEK fighters are treated as enemy prisoners of war they are supposed to be returned to their home countries at the end of hostilities. But that could mean certain death for this group.
"It's going to take the State Department to sort out their status, because repatriation to Iran is something they will not want," said Marine Maj. Michael Lindemann, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force's intelligence expert on the MEK.
The situation could be further complicated because the MEK and its political arm, the National Council of Resistance, has had wide support in the U.S. Congress as a leading group opposing the anti-American clerics who have ruled Iran since 1979.
The MEK's surrender is expected to delight Tehran, which had warned before the war that any U.S. attempt to turn MEK against Saddam would be a mistake, but that a U.S. strike against it would be "a good-will gesture."
According to the Defense Intelligence Agency, U.S. forces bombed two MEK sites near Baghdad.
The surrender pact, which was reached Tuesday with U.S. Special Forces, covers 3,000 MEK fighters and 7,000 relatives.
Under the terms of the surrender agreement, MEK fighters must abandon their bases in Iraq and gather at their main base in Baqubah, northeast of Baghdad. They must disable and leave all their weapons and fly white flags from their vehicles as they move to Baqubah on specific roads.
U.S. aircraft will watch them, said Lt. Col. Nick Morano, senior watch officer at IMEF's combat operations center.
But what will happen to them after that is uncertain.
"Saddam gave them refugee status, and now they are (enemy prisoners of war)," Morano said. "This is kind of a hot potato for us."
The MEK, Iran's largest opposition group, follows an odd mixture of Marxism and Islam reinforced by a cultlike adoration of its leaders, Masud Rajavi and his wife, Maryam. It boasts that half its fighters are women.
The MEK maintained nine bases around Iraq, and its military wing, the National Liberation Army of Iran, frequently conducted cross-border raids into Iran.
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The group was equipped by Saddam with 400 tanks and other armored vehicles, and according to the State Department, helped Iraq put down a Kurdish revolt after the 1991 Gulf War.
Originally founded in 1965 to fight the regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the MEK was behind the assassinations of several U.S. military personnel and defense contractors in the 1970s and backed the revolution of the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979.
But it broke with that government in 1981 and since has conducted several attacks against Iran, including the bombing of 13 Iranian embassies in 1992, the 1998 assassination of the former head of Iran's prisons and the 1999 murder of the Iranian army's deputy chief of staff.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, has said the group should play a role in Iran if the government there should fall. Ros-Lehtinen was unavailable to comment Wednesday, but an aide, Yleem Poblete, said the congresswoman would support treating the MEK as POWs if it is shown that "they attacked or in any way interfered with U.S. forces."
Several House leaders have turned against the MEK and National Council, as the war highlighted the group's ties to Saddam, but the White House has credited them with disclosing important information about Iran's nuclear and missile programs.
(Frank Davies contributed to this report from Washington.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.