Iranian opposition group surrenders weapons

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 12, 2003

CAMP ASHRAF, Iraq (AP) - Surrounded by American tanks, an Iranian opposition group under orders to surrender agreed Saturday to turn over its weapons and submit to the demands of U.S. forces, Army officials said. The United States used the occasion to warn other forces not to assert power.

Representatives of the Mujahedeen Khalq operating near Baqubah, 45 miles northeast of the capital, struck the agreement after two days of negotiations with U.S. forces. Their capitulation was reported by the U.S. Army's V Corps headquarters in Baghdad.

''V Corps has accepted the voluntary consolidation of the Mujahedeen Khalq forces and subsequent control over these forces,'' V Corps said in a statement Saturday night. It said the process would take ''several days'' to complete.

Email newsletter signup

It added: ''When this process is completed, it will significantly contribute to the coalition's mission to set the conditions that will establish a safe and secure environment for the people of Iraq.''

The Mujahedeen Khalq's well-armed force, which for years fought Iran's Islamic rulers from Iraq with the backing of Saddam Hussein's regime, posed a potential challenge to the U.S.-led coalition's authority as Iraq's military occupier. American officials deemed it a terrorist organization in the 1990s.

Military officials at V Corps, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the group had agreed to ''voluntarily hand over all their weapons'' including sidearms. They will be permitted to retain their uniforms.

Calls to the group's Paris headquarters Saturday were not answered.

The Mujahedeen Khalq's weaponry will be consolidated into one area, its members in another. They will be ''protected by American forces,'' one military official said. A rival armed group backed by the Iranian regime is active in the area, and there have been fears the two would clash.

Any travel by members of the Mujahedeen Khalq, including into Baqubah to purchase food, will be ''under escort,'' the United States said.

The V Corps statement did not use the word surrender, and the military officials said they would not describe the capitulation in those terms. The officials said members of the organization would not be classified as prisoners of war but under a status ''yet to be determined.''

''Surrender implies there was a fight,'' said Lt. Col. Bill MacDonald, a military spokesman for the 4th Infantry Division.

Saturday's capitulation, which appeared nonetheless to be a surrender in everything but terminology, underscores the U.S. desire to be the unquestioned and unchallenged armed force in Iraq a month after the fall of Saddam's regime.

Its announcement of the Mujahedeen Khalq developments was accompanied by a warning to any groups that might assert authority in postwar Iraq.

''Groups who display hostile intent or refuse to cooperate with the authority of the coalition will be subjected to the full weight of coalition military power,'' V Corps said. ''These groups are urged to submit to the authority of the coalition immediately.''

On Saturday afternoon, Apache helicopter gunships flew low over the sandstone buildings of Camp Ashraf, the group's headquarters, as negotiations wrapped up.

Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles lined the highway near the camp. Two tanks pointed their guns toward the sandbagged guardpost at the entrance. Two U.S. Air Force spotters - personnel who call in air strikes - were in the back of a Bradley in front of the gate.

The Mujahedeen Khalq, or People's Warriors, is the military wing of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran, an umbrella body said to unite Iran's diverse opposition groups.

Before Saddam's ouster, the group helped train his elite Republican Guard units, according to the U.S. military. It has several camps near Baqubah, not far from the Iranian border.

The confrontation between the group and the U.S. military that escalated Friday came three weeks after a truce between the Iranians and the Army, which American officials had called a ''prelude'' to surrender.

Under the April 15 truce, the Mujahedeen Khalq could keep its weapons to defend itself against Iranian-backed attacks but had to stop manning checkpoints it had set up.

But reports of roadblock confrontations in recent days suggested it had continued playing an active role in the region.

The Mujahedeen Khalq was allied with the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic fundamentalists during the 1979 revolution that overthrew the pro-American dictatorship of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. But the new government soon banned the Mujahedeen Khalq and other groups that advocated a secular regime.

During the 1970s, the group was accused in attacks that killed several Americans working on defense projects in Iran, although the group denies targeting Americans. It reportedly backed the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979.