- Mujahedin-e-Khalq was put on terror list in 1997
- But since 2004, the United States has considered the group "noncombatants"
- Decision "does not overlook or forget the MEK's past acts of terrorism," U.S. says
- "This has been the correct decision, albeit long overdue," chief says
The Iranian exile group Mujahedin-e-Khalq has been removed from a State Department terror list, officials said Friday.
The group was put on the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, which includes more than 50 groups like al Qaeda and Hezbollah, in 1997 because of the killing of six Americans in Iran in the 1970s and an attempted attack against the Iranian mission to the United Nations in 1992.
However, since 2004 the United States has considered the group, which has lived for more than 25 years at a refugee camp in Iraq, "noncombatants" and "protected persons" under the Geneva Conventions.
Mujahedin-e-Khalq's move from Camp Ashraf is nearing completion under the auspices of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq. The members are relocating to a temporary site there before being resettled in third countries.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was under a court order to decide by October 1 whether to remove the group from the terror list.
"With today's actions, the department does not overlook or forget the MEK's past acts of terrorism, including its involvement in the killing of U.S. citizens in Iran in the 1970s and an attack on U.S. soil in 1992," the State Department said in a statement.
"The department also has serious concerns about the MEK as an organization, particularly with regard to allegations of abuse committed against its own members.
"The Secretary's decision today took into account the MEK's public renunciation of violence, the absence of confirmed acts of terrorism by MEK for more than a decade, and their cooperation in the peaceful closure of Camp Ashraf, their historic paramilitary base," the statement said.
Maryam Rajavi, head of Mujahedin-e-Khalq and president-elect of the National Council of Resistance, praised the decision Friday.
"I understand that this decision was difficult and required political courage," Rajavi said in a statement. "This has been the correct decision, albeit long overdue, in order to remove a major obstacle in the path of the Iranian people's efforts for democracy. For more than a decade, the mullahs made every effort to prevent removal of this designation.
"They do not conceal their anger and disappointment and are trying hysterically to counter Secretary Clinton's decision with their lobby groups in the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe.
"The people of America and the U.S. Government will realize that, contrary to the campaign of demonization and misinformation orchestrated by the religious fascism ruling Iran, our movement is far removed from all the allegations and accusations churned out by the current Iranian regime, is merely striving for freedom and democracy in Iran, and is campaigning against fundamentalism and export of terrorism," Rajavi said.
Being on the list carries a certain stigma and allows the United States to legally go after financing and take other steps against individuals associated with these groups.
Officials acknowledge that the decision has been the subject of a contentious debate within the administration.
Mujahedin-e-Khalq is considered by many in the administration to be a bizarre cult-like organization, prompting concerns about its behavior. Officials say these concerns factored heavily in the debate.
The group denies that it supports terrorism, and supporters rally daily in front of the State Department to demand removal from the terrorism list.
Many members of Congress have pressured Clinton to do the same.
Moreover, Mujahedin-e-Khalq has paid well-known former U.S. politicians and former administration heavyweights to speak out on its behalf, including former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, former FBI Director Louis Freeh and former National Security Adviser James Jones.
The last major convoy of 680 members of Mujahedin-e-Khalq arrived this month at the temporary relocation site at a former U.S. military base near Baghdad International Airport, the U.N. mission for Iraq said.
The State Department said at the time that the arrival marked "a significant milestone in efforts to achieve a sustainable humanitarian solution to this issue."
Mujahedin-e-Khalq leaders have been reluctant to complete the move from Camp Ashraf to Camp Hurriya, formerly an American facility known as Camp Liberty. They complained about conditions at the new camp, calling it more a prison than a home after the first convoy arrived in February.
Camp Ashraf was established in 1986 after former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invited members of Mujahedin-e-Khalq to relocate to Iraq in an effort to undermine the Iranian government, which was then at war with Iraq. Iran also considers the group to be a terrorist organization.