Iranian group tests U.S. terrorism policy
By Michael R. Gordon with Douglas Jehl
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Acting on a decision by President Bush, American commanders in Iraq have begun efforts to disarm an Iranian opposition group whose status had been the subject of weeks of review at the highest levels of the Bush administration.
American military officials have been meeting in recent days with leaders of the group, the Mujahedeen Khalq, to work out arrangements for taking the group's weapons and ensuring that it can no longer operate in Iraq.
The Mujahedeen Khalq has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States, but the terms of an April 15 cease-fire agreement with the military let the group keep most of its weapons. The group maintains camps near the Iranian border, and before the war it operated with the support of Saddam Hussein's government.
The cease-fire deal was supported by American military commanders in Iraq, who were looking for a practical way to deal with the group without saddling already burdened American forces. At the same time, the agreement provided an opening for civilians at the Pentagon who argued that it should be followed by a decision to amend or eliminate the group's terrorist designation. Then, the argument went, it could be used by the United States as a check against potential Iranian meddling inside Iraq.
Administration officials and military officers in Baghdad said today that the issue was not completely resolved until this week, when the question of the group's status was debated by the so-called principals' committee of Mr. Bush's top security advisers and was then ultimately decided by the president himself.
State Department officials said the question of whether to disarm the Mujahedeen Khalq had been the subject of sharp debate with Pentagon officials. But Douglas J. Feith, the under secretary of defense for policy, said tonight that the "characterization was not accurate." He said the Pentagon's position has consistently been that the group "is a terrorist organization and should be disarmed."
Since they were first disclosed by the military's Central Command late last month, the terms of the cease-fire agreement has raised questions about the consistency of American counterterrorism policy. The Mujahedeen's designation as a terrorist group, which dates back to 1997, sets the organization in the same category as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
In the debate, State Department officials argued that any accord that allowed the Mujahedeen Khalq to keep its weapons would make the Bush administration vulnerable to charges that it maintained a double standard on terrorism, with exemptions available to groups battling targets like Iran, which the White House has called part of an "axis of evil."
"The United States government does not negotiate with terrorists," Cofer Black, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, said in expressing that view late last month. The Mujahedeen's "opposition to the Iranian government does not change the fact that they are a terrorist organization," he said.
The Iranian group has no known ties to Al Qaeda, but its members killed several American military personnel and civilian contractors in the 1970's and supported the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979. It has carried out dozens of bombings that were aimed at Iranian military and government workers but that also killed civilians.
Still, the group has dozens of supporters on Capitol Hill who have suggested that designating it a terrorist organization, first done by the Clinton administration in 1997, was a political decision meant as a gesture to Iran that could legitimately be reversed given new concerns about the situation in Iraq.
The role being played inside Iraq by Iranian-backed forces, most notably a group called the Badr Brigade, has been the subject of much attention within the administration. Pentagon officials have described it as an attempt by Tehran to project influence among Iraq's majority Shiite population.
The Mujahedeen Khalq numbers about 10,000 people in Iraq, including about 3,000 who are believed to be fighters. They have been stationed in five camps near the Iranian border.
According to administration officials and American officers, the group has generally been complying with the terms of the cease-fire negotiated last month and has presented no threat to American troops. All of its tanks and heavy weapons were shifted to the east toward Iran. The cease-fire has been monitored by Army helicopters and American Special Forces.
American military commanders originally intended the cease-fire to be followed up with a "capitulation" agreement that would entail taking away some, but not all, of the Mujahedeen Khalq's weapons. Under that plan, now discarded, the idea had been to create a balance of power so that the group could fend off attacks by Iranian agents and the Badr Brigade, the Iranian-backed group of Iraqi exiles. This, American military commanders hoped, would avoid a situation in which American forces would have to be deployed in the area or interposed between the Mujahedeen Khalq and the Badr Brigade. But they were overruled in Washington.
Under the new arrangement, the Mujahedeen would be required to hand over all its weapons and move to designated safe areas, officials said. The American military will then take on the responsibility of guarantee the group's security and stabilizing the region.
Military officials in Washington said today that the April 15 cease-fire had always been regarded as nothing more than an interim step, and that the United States had always held out the option of forcing the group to surrender completely.
"It was one of those situations where we told them, `There could be further action down the road, like surrender, and if you've committed atrocities in the past few years, we'll get you for that, too,' " a military official said.
A Defense Department official said the initial American goal had been to ensure that the group would not pose a threat to allied troops.
But in the long term, this official said, "you can't have an armed belligerent force, which is also a terrorist organization, operating in a free Iraq."
The military officials said that many details about the surrender are yet to be resolved, including who exactly surrenders, whether it be all 3,000 fighters and their 7,000 dependents, or just the leaders, and whether the group is to be disbanded.
Over the past several days, Maj. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the commander of the Army's Fourth Infantry Division, has been meeting with the group to work out details, American officials said.