Wednesday, June 05, 1991

Facing Iran, an Army With Resolve and Day Care

Facing Iran, an Army With Resolve and Day Care

New York Times
June 5, 1991

At the age of 34, Saddieghah Hosseini is a graduate in mathematics and the mother of a 7-year-old daughter. She has also learned to drive the Soviet-made T-55 battle tank in combat against the Revolutionary Guards of Iran, taking a glancing blow in March from a rocket-propelled grenade.

"Being a tank driver," she said, "is a full-time job."

Mrs. Hosseini and thousands of other Iranians belong to the National Liberation Army of Iran, a dissident force set up by the Iranian People's Mujahedeen opposition group, which is based in Iraq and which is committed to the overthrow of the Islamic revolutionary Government in Teheran.

With the end of the Persian Gulf war, the army has found itself in an ambiguous position: over the last three years, its officers say, it has transformed itself from an infantry force to a conventional, if small, army, with tanks, artillery, anti-aircraft batteries and mobile missile launchers. But without Iraq's agreement, it cannot cross the border to strike at its adversaries, and so it is thrown back on training. A Husband-and-Wife Team

Mrs. Hosseini was one of several army members to talk to reporters at this extensive training camp on hot, flat plains 60 miles north of Baghdad and 60 miles west of the Iranian border, where the Mujahedeen like to make much of the fact that, extraordinarily in this region, women fight alongside men in an army jointly led by a husband and wife, Massoud and Maryam Rajavi.

The fact that reporters were able to visit the camp suggested that Baghdad wanted to send a signal to Teheran: if, as Baghdad asserts, the Iranians have fomented unrest among the Shiite Muslim majority in southern Iraq, then it would offer a reminder that it has its own proxies to deploy in the long-running war of surrogates between the two neighbors.

But the visit by reporters also offered the army a chance to try to revise foreigners' thinking about it, notably the idea advanced by diplomats throughout this region that it is no more than a cat's-paw, controlled by Iraq's military intelligence agencies and regarded by Baghdad, at least, as primarily a bargaining chip in its long conflict with Iran.

Mrs. Hosseini's T-55 was among 30 or so armored vehicles that trundled along a tarred road for the cameras, lurching and rattling in a display of what the army calls military strength independent of Baghdad.

"There are times when people look at our army as an appendix of the Iran-Iraq war," Mohammed Towhidi, a senior Mujahedeen official, said. "Quite frankly, that is not true."

Iranians Reported Repulsed

In March and April, he said, the army repulsed two campaigns by Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who crossed the border north of here, around Jalloula, apparently in an effort to take advantage of the chaos in Iraq in the wake of the Persian Gulf war and crush the Mujahedeen. They were repulsed, the Mujahedeen says.

The campaign offered Mrs. Hosseini her combat debut in the T-55. "I was trying to keep myself under control and perform my responsibility as well as possible," she said.

Her gunner, she went on, scored direct hits on "the enemy," who fired a rocket-propelled grenade that glanced off the T-55's armor without piercing it. All the crew members of her tank were women, although the bulk of the army's tank crews appeared to be men.

"In all the operations the N.L.A. has carried out," said Hossein Abrishamchi, the commander of this base -- said to be one of five along the Iran-Iraq -- "we have had complete military independence."

The most basic flaw in the Mujahedeen's argument is that the army cannot cross the border or rely on Iraq's own military campaigns to distract Iranian forces as long as Baghdad abides by the cease-fire it made with Teheran in August 1988.

But because the cease-fire is unstable, Mr. Towhidi said, "there is a realistic and viable chance" for the army to resume the cross-border strikes it last launched in July 1988, when Iraq itself, by no coincidence, was seizing Iranian territory.

The Mujahedeen was one of the Iranian movements that opposed the Shah of Iran and took part in the 1979 revolution, before the Islamic militants of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini crushed the organization and sent its leaders into exile. Depicting itself as the only alternative to Iran's Islamic rulers, it offers a vision of Islam without coercion, but with free-market economic policies and democracy. Brother Executed

Mrs. Hosseini, the tank driver, said that after finishing her mathematics course at Teheran University in 1982, she fled Iran for further studies in London and Oxford. In the mid-1980's, she said, the Iranian authorities executed her 19-year-old brother, Mahmoud, a political dissenter, and she went to see Mujahedeen officials in London to join up. They sent her to Iraq for basic training, she fought as a foot soldier in 1988 and then she volunteered to become a tank driver.

"For us it's very simple: the objective is to overthrow the Khomeini regime," she said, using the label Mujahedeen attach to the Iranian leadership despite the Ayatollah's death two years ago.

When the allied bombing of Iraq began last January, she said, she sent her 7-year-old daughter, Azar, whose father is also a Mujahedeen fighter, to relatives in London for safety. Before that, she said, like other working women, she would rise and dress and feed her daughter and send her to day care before she went to work in the T-55. "They have great day care," she said.