National security adviser Condoleezza Rice, rebutting suggestions the Bush administration is being lenient with an Iranian opposition group operating out of Iraq, said yesterday that the Mujaheddin-e Khalq is "part of the global war on terrorism" and its members "are being screened for possible involvement in war crimes, terrorism and other criminal activities."
Rice, in an interview with Washington Post reporters and editors, said she was responding to an article in The Post on Sunday that described an apparently easygoing relationship between U.S. forces and the 3,800 Mujaheddin-e Khalq (MEK) troops. One military official, Sgt. William Sutherland, told a reporter that MEK members are patriots. "The problem is they're still labeled as terrorists, even though we both know they're not," Sutherland said.
Rice said, "The story and such stories have been causing some confusion about American policy. We just wanted to make sure the reference is clear, that everyone understands where we stand on the MEK."
The MEK is a highly sensitive issue for Iran, which has privately suggested to the administration that it will turn over al Qaeda members in exchange for captured members of the MEK. Last month, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage ruled out such a deal "because we can't be sure of the way they'd be treated," referring to the MEK members.
But the administration has also indicated that it is willing to restart Iraq-related discussions with Iran, which were suspended six months ago. Rice's remarks appear to be part of an effort to signal to the Iranians that the administration is firm on dealing with the group.
"I just want to be very clear that the U.S. remains committed to preventing the MEK, which is now contained in Iraq, from engaging in terrorist activities, including activities against Iran, and its reconstitution inside Iraq as a terrorist organization," Rice said.
The State Department officially designated the MEK as a terrorist group in 1997. The MEK has been campaigning for several decades to overthrow the Iranian government, and since 1987 has been operating out of Iraq with the backing of Saddam Hussein.
But since the start of war in Iraq, the MEK has been the subject of a fierce tug-of-war within the administration. While the State Department pressed for MEK members to be treated as terrorists, some Pentagon officials appeared to view them as a possible vanguard against the Iranian government.
Six months ago, President Bush ordered U.S. military forces to surround the MEK's camps along the Iraq-Iran border and to force the group to give up its arms. But administration officials said the Pentagon for months allowed the group to retain its weapons, to come and go at the camps at will and to use camp facilities to broadcast propaganda into Iran.
In September, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell wrote Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld about the issue. Powell's note cited reports that the MEK enjoyed broad freedom to continue its operations. The note also mentioned that intercepts of Iranian government communications indicated the MEK continued to pose problems for the government in Tehran.
The White House at the time acknowledged that, while the MEK was to be treated by the military as a terrorist organization, "recently, the Department of Defense has come to believe that guidance has not been fully implemented." Officials said a plan was carried out to fulfill the original guidance "in accordance with resources available."
In January, before the war against Iraq was launched, U.S. officials held a secret meeting with Iranian officials. They suggested that the United States would target the MEK as a way of gaining Iran's cooperation in sealing its border and providing assistance to search-and-rescue missions for downed U.S. pilots during the war.
In early April, U.S. forces bombed the MEK camps, killing about 50 people, according to the group, before a cease-fire was arranged on April 15. The cease-fire convinced the Iranian government that it had been double-crossed -- until Bush ordered in May that the group be disarmed.