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Iranian-exile group backed by Saddam agrees to disarm

SOUTH OF JALULA, Iraq—U.S. military commanders reached a tentative agreement Friday with leaders of an Iranian opposition group operating in Iraq to put down their weapons and place themselves under coalition control.

After nearly eight hours of negotiating, U.S. commanders from V Corps and the 4th Infantry Division said the Mujahedeen Khalq, or MEK, have yet to agree on the exact wording of the agreement.

U.S. commanders and MEK leaders agreed to end talks for the day after the secretary general of the MEK said she wanted more time to translate the document U.S. commanders asked them to sign. Talks will resume Saturday morning.

Last month, they agreed to avoid military conflict with U.S. forces and move into containment areas. 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.

One sticking point in the negotiation was the term "surrender," which appears in the title of the document. The MEK said the document appeared more like something an Iraqi prisoner of war would be asked to sign.

"They agreed to come under our control, but the term surrender implies a fight, and they are saying there has not been a fight with the MEK," said Lt. Col. Bill McDonald, a spokesman for the 4th Infantry Division. But McDonald said the delay was not an indication that talks were not proceeding as planned, or that the U.S. would not achieve its goal.

"When this is all over the MEK will be disarmed and disbanded as a fighting force in Iraq," McDonald said.

The two-page document calls for the MEK and the Iranian National Liberation Army, both opposed to the Iranian government, to move all their 4,000 to 8,000 fighters to one of four military-controlled areas established during the war and move all operational military vehicles to another.

The MEK has protested that turning over their weapons to the Americans will leave them without defense against the Badr Corps, an Iranian-backed Shiite militia that has been moving freely across the Iran-Iraq border.

U.S. commanders hope a signed agreement will resolve a conundrum for U.S. war planners in Iraq. The MEK agreed to a hasty cease-fire negotiated by Special Forces soldiers when the war began. That agreement only sought to keep the MEK from entering the war and allowed them to keep their weapons.

But U.S. officials could not allow an organization that operated freely under Saddam Hussein and identified by the State Department as a terrorist organization in 1997 to continue to operate in Iraq.

At one point, an MEK leader confided to U.S. commanders that it would be difficult to ask her forces to give up the only life they have known.

"She said she had fought with them for 20 years, had seen a lot of her friends martyred, and that this was the toughest thing she had done in her life," said Col. Fred Rudesheim, commander of the 3rd Brigade.

On Friday night Rudesheim was traveling the rugged undulating hills of the former MEK-controlled areas, making sure his troops were prepared for any possibility. His soldiers took over all the MEK checkpoints in the area Thursday night and placed tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles around four cantonment areas.

Also Friday, he told his commanders to heed reports that Badr forces would try to probe the lines in an effort to disrupt the negotiations.

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064):

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Iraq

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