KHALIS, Iraq—An Iranian exile army on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations has settled into abandoned Iraqi army bases and set up checkpoints throughout the sensitive Iran-Iraq border region just weeks after U.S. bombers systematically struck the bases it had occupied as special guests of Saddam Hussein.
U.S. military sources say the turf grab comes as Special Forces are struggling to negotiate a full-blown surrender of the Mujahadin el Khalq, following a secret cease-fire agreement April 15.
Although lobbyists for the MEK have won some sympathy for its cause in the U.S. Congress, the group has been labeled a terror organization by the State Department and has emerged as the sole, organized force still under arms as U.S. forces try to assert themselves as the sole armed authority in Iraq.
Moreover, U.S. officers trying to negotiate the MEK surrender have found "they're kind of a weird organization," said Army Capt. Josh Felker, spokesman for the 2nd Battalion 4th Infantry Division.
Their cult-like zeal to overturning the regime in Iran, evident in a day spent at their base here, makes it difficult to see how they will willingly cast aside their weapons.
"For 25 years, I have devoted myself to the freedom of Iran," said Mahnaz Bazazi, 45, who lost both legs below the knees when U.S. aircraft attacked the MEK base where she was working last month. "Should I just be set aside because I lost my legs and sit here?"
From the viewpoint of the 4th Infantry Division, whose mission is to tame the unruly Diala region northeast of Baghdad, the MEK is both stabilizing and destabilizing influence, Felker said at battalion headquarters in Baquba on Thursday.
He called it "a force that we've been somehow working with getting our agenda across," meaning the MEK so far has not targeted U.S. forces. But as the United States tries to sort out who should control Iraq, the Iranians "are destabilizing in that they were a force that we haven't put in power," he said.
U.S. Special Forces want the MEK to move all its forces to its base at Khalis, a patch of desert between Tikrit and Baquba where they have trained for years. An Iranian flag flies at the base's gate.
The base was a gift from Saddam as recognition of their shared interest in toppling Iran's Islamic Regime, said Khalis base commander Pari Bakshair.
But the U.S. Army and U.S. Special Forces troops have been encountering MEK fighters throughout Diala Province.
Today's MEK is the latest version of a group of campus activists who opposed the Shah of Iran's regime and, for a time, became darlings of the Islamic Revolutionaries that put the Ayatollah Khomeini into power.
But they broke with the Islamic regime and organized themselves in Europe before establishing their so-called National Liberation Army across Iraq, with special privileges and perks from Saddam's socialist Baath Party regime. They made the U.S. terror list after a series of car bombings in Tehran and assassination attempts on Iranian officials.
Their military flag features a rifle and crossed sickle, reminiscent of a Communist banner, but their ideology has been fashioned to suit their survival, on the one hand cooperating with the Baath regime, on the other hand feeding U.S. intelligence details of Iranian military activities while professing their love of America.
The U.S. military estimates they number up to 8,000 fighters, more than the 5,000 or so U.S. troops sent to pacify the region.
Interviews with members are long on almost identical rhetoric about "Iran's tyrannical, misogynist regime" and short on facts regarding leadership and numbers.
For a time, the organization flatly denied that the United States had bombed its bases in the days after Baghdad fell, but this week fighters grudgingly acknowledged that U.S. air strikes April 9 and 10 by B-52 bombers and F-18s systematically flattened a 25-building base at Jalula and damaged supply bases here and at Alavi.
Seven fighters were killed and several more were injured, but none at Jalula, explained Mahdi Zare, 40, of Shiraz, who joined the movement in 1982 and was working Wednesday at a checkpoint inside a rest stop they had seized two hours from the Iranian border.
But a worse toll has been taken in skirmishes with the Badr Brigade, the armed wing of the Supreme Counsel for an Islamic Revolution Iraq, an Iraqi group that had fought with Iranian sponsorship for an end to the Saddam regime.
Bakshai said 33 MEK fighters have been killed and 50 wounded in gun, grenade and hand-to-hand battles with "agents of the Mullahs" who seek to export Iran's regime to the Shiite Muslim majority in Iraq.
U.S. military intelligence estimates the Badr's numbers in the thousands; commander Bakshai estimated their number at 14,000 and claimed the Iranian government had mixed Iranians among the Iraqi Arabs.
Under Saddam's patronage, the MEK lived a privileged life in Iraq for 20 years, even being granted TV time to promote their cause. In that time, MEK members developed a single-minded devotion to their cause—sending their children abroad and shunning marriage to focus on liberating Iraq.
A reporter's visit to their main encampment here revealed a cult-like compound—part campus, part military base. About 20 women performed maintenance on Brazilian armored vehicles and 40 men practiced hand-to-hand battle techniques.
About 40 percent of the force are believed to be women, many of whom serve in command roles and look significantly plumper than the male forces. Men serve as commandos and appear strikingly lean.
"We are a national liberation army. We are perfection. I get my strength from my belief—not from my food," said Zare, 40, who was encamped at a highway rest stop Thursday about two hours from the Iranian border.
About seven soldiers were there, all having seized the spot, he said, after retreating from Jalula. It was impossible to determine who was in charge because they wear no insignia on their uniforms. "We are all officers," Zare said with a toothy grin.
"Everyone is a friend, and we all think exactly the same thing."
Speak to MEK members at their base and they either refer all questions to their commanders or respond with almost robot-like repetition, "My soul mission is to fight the Khomeini regime," a zeal that raises questions about how easily they will be to disarm.
Mahnaz Bazazi, described as a senior MEK officer, used similar words as she lay in a camp clinic bed, her legs cut off at the knees in the U.S. air strikes.
"I feel no hostility toward U.S. forces," she said, smiling wanly. "My only concern is to fight the Khomeini regime. The leg is the least I can give. If all my hands and other parts of my body will be amputated my commitment will not change. Maybe I can still ride a tank? I don't know."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.