SOUTH OF JALULA, Iraq—U.S. forces Thursday moved to neutralize the Iranian opposition group Mujahadin el Khalq after the first formal meeting between U.S. and MEK commanders.
Col. Fred Rudesheim, commander of the 4th Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade, told the MEK leaders that his forces would take control of four areas occupied by MEK fighters by the end of the day. The MEK agreed last month to a cease-fire and move into the cantonment areas to avoid a fight with U.S. troops.
"We pressed to take control of those areas as soon as possible," said Rudesheim. "They asked if we could wait until Friday, and I told them we would take over their areas in one hour. They looked surprised," he said.
The MEK are Iranian Shiites opposed to the Ayatollahs and protected for years by Saddam Hussein, who shared their goal of toppling Iran's Islamic regime. The group was accused of assisting Iraqi Republican Guard forces in quashing uprisings of Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south. The group denies those charges.
By Thursday night U.S. soldiers patrolled the checkpoints once manned by the MEK, seizing weapons from motorists. Soldiers also met with MEK officials at several roadblocks, while MEK members moved their massive British-made Chieftain tanks from the area and piled into Toyota trucks with antiaircraft guns mounted on top.
The takeover looked cordial with soldiers from both sides sitting at white plastic tables and sipping drinks while a brigade of U.S. troops rumbled into the region near the Iranian border.
"Before the war we told the U.S. that we had no fight with them," MEK commander Naiad Karma, 42, said through a translator. "We didn't fight with them even after they bombed us," he said referring to a reported U.S. air strike several weeks ago on MEK positions near Baghdad.
But whether U.S. forces will allow the MEK to operate remains to be seen. Much depends on what type of threat U.S. commanders think the MEK poses to the new government in Iraq.
Many MEK members initially agreed to disarm, but could not agree on the terms of the deal. One sticking point is the group still faces attacks from opposition groups, such as the Badr Brigades, a group that wants an Islamic state to replace Saddam's secular regime. Another unanswered question is what will happen to MEK members once they agree to turn over their weapons.
Iran has offered immunity to the group, but members said they are leery of the deal. Iran has long sought to eliminate the group because of the raids and terrorist strikes they have mounted from Iraq for decades.
"There should be no problem with us," said Salman Bagherzadeh, 31, who left London to join the MEK.
"We should be allowed to continue our fight." He dismissed the State Department's labeling of the group as a terrorist organization because, according to State's report, they have participated in the killing of U.S. citizens in Iraq and supported the overthrow of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979.
"We are fighting for humanity and the freedom of people," Bagherzadeh said. "Anyone who looks at the film of men stoning women (in Iran) and the hangings in the street would understand why we fight."
The meeting Thursday comes nearly a month after the group agreed to a deal to move its estimated 4,000 to 8,000 fighters from around Al Miqdadiyah to Baqubah, about 25 miles west of the Iranian border. The group also agreed to move its more than 200 military vehicles, mostly older Russian and British tanks, to the cantonment areas.
Meanwhile, two U.S. soldiers were killed in Baghdad on Thursday, evidence that American forces remain in the midst of danger.
In far eastern Baghdad, a gunman walked up to a soldier with the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment and shot him in the back of the head, according to a spokesman at V Corps Army headquarters.
Few other details were available. The second soldier, with the 3rd Infantry Division, was killed by a sniper. They were not identified pending notification of relatives.
Lt. Col. William Jeffers of the 3rd Infantry Division said they did not catch the sniper but had a description of him. Further details of the incident were not immediately available.
On the other side of the city, U.S. troops had two close calls with mines that appeared to have been recently laid. Children on the roadside motioned for a military convoy to drive around a large plastic bag on the main highway outside a former Baath Party recreation compound. But a large civilian truck behind the convoy ran over the bag and its contents exploded.
The blast destroyed the truck but did not injure the driver. Traffic in the area was diverted across a median strip a quarter-mile away. About a half-hour later, an Army Humvee hit a "probable land mine" while crossing the median strip, damaging the vehicle and possibly injuring two soldiers.
Army commanders said they believed the "probable land mine" had been planted recently because the crossing is a popular one.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Andrea Gerlin contributed to this story from Baghdad.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ