Sun, Dec 14, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Iranian `terrorists' fight expulsion

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , WASHINGTON

Representatives of an Iranian opposition group are appealing to the Pentagon to overrule an order this week by the Iraqi Governing Council that would expel its members from Iraq by the end of the year, possibly to Iran.

The group, the People's Mujahidin, or Mujahidin Khalq, maintained armed camps in Iraq under former president Saddam Hussein. It is listed by the US as a terrorist organization, but it has strong supporters in the Pentagon, who see it as an important pressure point on the Iranian government.

The request was sent on Thursday to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and shown to The New York Times on Friday by someone sympathetic to the group. It is being cast by some in the organization as a last-ditch effort to avoid an expulsion that could put its members into the hands of the Tehran government.

Iran has quietly been seeking to persuade the Bush administration to agree to the handover, administration officials said.

Tehran has relayed word through intermediaries that it may move in turn to expel members of al-Qaeda that it says it has in custody. But the Bush administration has rejected the idea of such an exchange.

The group's status in Iraq since the American invasion has remained murky, with several thousand of its members confined to a sprawling camp outside Baghdad under American military supervision as part of a cease-fire agreement reached in April.

None of the group's members have been detained by the US, and they have been permitted to keep some small weapons and to continue broadcasts into Iran.

Bush administration officials have defended that treatment as appropriate to the group's status as a terrorist organization. But State Department spokesman Richard Boucher has refused to say whether the administration supports the order by the Iraqi Governing Council, whose authority to act unilaterally remains uncertain. Boucher has said only that American officials will be "discussing the matter" with their Iraqi counterparts.

In appealing to the Pentagon, the Mujahidin are clearly reaching out to factions within the administration that have shown the most sympathy for the group, which has carried out many acts of sabotage and assassination inside Iran and which the Iranian government regards as its most powerful external foe.

In a letter sent Thursday to Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and others, a lawyer for the group argued that the US had an obligation under the Geneva Convention as the occupying power in Iraq to prevent the organization's members from being expelled.

Any expulsion, particularly to Iran, "would constitute a violation of the laws of war and an egregious breach of international human rights law," said the letter from Marc Hezelin, a Swiss lawyer representing the group.

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