Monday, November 24, 2003

Hezbollah, in Iraq, Refrains From Attacks on Americans

Hezbollah, in Iraq, Refrains From Attacks on Americans

New York Times
November 24, 2003

Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite group, has established a significant presence in Iraq, but is not taking part in attacks on American forces inside the country, according to current and former United States officials and Arabs familiar with the organization.

Iran is believed to be restraining Hezbollah from attacking American troops, and that is prompting a debate within the Bush administration about Iran's objectives, administration officials said.

Hezbollah's presence has become a source of concern as it is recognized by counterterrorist experts to have some of the most dangerous operatives in the world.

Both American and Israeli intelligence have found evidence that Hezbollah operatives have established themselves in Iraq, according to current and former United States officials. Separately, Arabs in Lebanon and elsewhere who are familiar with the organization say Hezbollah has sent what they describe as a security team of up to 90 members to Iraq.

The organization has steered clear of attacks on Americans, the American officials and Arabs familiar with Hezbollah agree. United States intelligence officials said Hezbollah operatives were believed to have arrived in Iraq soon after the end of major combat operations last spring, and had refrained from attacks on Americans ever since. The Central Intelligence Agency has not seen a major influx of Hezbollah operatives since that time, officials added.

''Hezbollah has moved to establish a presence inside Iraq, but it isn't clear from the intelligence reports what their intent is,'' one administration official said.

Based in Lebanon, Hezbollah is a Shiite Islamic group that is under Tehran's control. Syria, which dominates Lebanon and controls Hezbollah's supply lines from Iran, also plays a powerful role with the group.

Inside Lebanon, Hezbollah has taken on an increasingly political role, but it continues to pose a global threat. The United States has issued a $25 million reward for the capture of Imad Mugniyah, the longtime chief of foreign terrorist operations; he is believed to have been behind a series of attacks against Americans in the 1980's, including hostage-taking operations in Lebanon.

More recently, Hezbollah has focused its activities on Israel, and is not believed to have launched a large attack against American interests since 1996, when, according to American government charges, it conducted the bombing of the Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 Americans.

In recent months, American troops have faced a deadly guerrilla campaign waged largely by the remnants of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party government in the Sunni-dominated region of central Iraq. Some foreign Arab fighters are believed to have infiltrated Iraq, but their role in attacks against American troops now appears to be less significant than United States military and intelligence officials originally believed.

American forces have faced far less violence in Shiite-dominated southern Iraq than they have in the Sunni heartland. The Shiites, though the majority of Iraq's population, suffered severe oppression under the Sunni-dominated government of Mr. Hussein, and have so far appeared more willing to accept the American military occupation.

But Iran's role in Iraq's Shiite community has been a wild card for the Bush administration. Shiite-dominated Iran has a strong interest in influencing the political and religious direction of the country, particularly because some of the Shiite world's holiest sites are in the Iraqi cities of Karbala and Najaf. Iran's powerful clerical leaders are deeply concerned about which clerics emerge as the dominant figures in those cities, American officials say.

''We are very aware of the rivalry between Iranian Shia and Iraqi Shia for dominance in that community,'' one administration official said. ''It's possible that Hezbollah is there to help the Iraqis politically, to work in the Shia community,'' and have no plans for terrorist attacks against Americans, the official added.

Another critical concern of the Iranians is the American policy toward the People's Mujahedeen, an anti-Iranian terrorist group that operated for years on the Iraqi side of the border under the protection of Mr. Hussein's government.

Since the American occupation of the country, the Bush administration has been deeply divided over how to handle this group. Pentagon officials and conservatives inside and outside the administration have been open to the idea of using it against the Iranians, but State Department officials have argued that the group should be disarmed and rendered ineffective to improve relations with Iran.

Last spring, President Bush ordered that American forces disarm the group, but some administration officials say the Pentagon has purposefully been lax in its treatment of the organization. An administration official said last week that the United States military had allowed some members of the People's Mujahedeen to enter and leave Iran, and that the group still had equipment for broadcasting its antigovernment messages into Iran.

Earlier this month, in an interview with The Washington Post, Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, tried to clarify the administration's policy toward the anti-Iranian group by insisting that Washington was treating it as terrorist.

But the Iranians remain suspicious about American intentions, and some administration officials speculated that Tehran might be trying to use Hezbollah's presence in Iraq as a counterweight, to deter the Americans from unleashing the Mujahedeen against Iran.

American officials say they believe that Iran wants to resume the quiet dialogue with the United States that has been suspended in recent months. Earlier this year, Bush administration officials charged that operatives of Al Qaeda in Iran were behind a May 12 terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia, although American officials subsequently learned that those operatives, including Saef al-Adel, a pivotal Qaeda figure, were in some form of custody in Iran.

More recently, Iran has said it has handed over some Qaeda operatives to other countries, but has been unwilling to turn them over directly to the United States. It is possible, some American officials said, that the Iranians want to resume talks, and that by keeping Hezbollah under wraps, they are quietly sending a conciliatory message to Washington.

''I think it is a little bit of the carrot and the stick,'' said one administration official. ''They want a dialogue, and they also want to get their hands on'' members of the Mujahedeen.

''I think sending Hezbollah to Iraq is about Iran's desire for us to take them seriously, both in terms of their interests in Iraq and their broader concerns in the Middle East,'' observed one former American official familiar with the intelligence reports on Hezbollah's presence in Iraq. ''They want a dialogue with us, and they are signaling they can help us or hurt us.''

Thursday, November 13, 2003

U.S. said slow to move against Iranian group

U.S. said slow to move against Iranian group
November 13, 2003
By Arshad Mohammed

WASHINGTON, Nov 13 (Reuters) - Some U.S. officials said on Thursday the U.S. military has not moved fast enough against the Mujahideen-e-Khalq Iranian opposition group in Iraq despite its U.S. designation as a "foreign terrorist organization."

The White House sought to quash suggestions the military has treated the group, which seeks the overthrow of the Iranian government, leniently and stressed the U.S. policy that it is a "terrorist organization."

U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, quickly echoed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, said MEK members in Iraq were being screened for "possible involvement in war crimes, terrorism and other criminal activities."

Rice's comments in an interview with the Washington Post -- parts of which were repeated almost verbatim in a written statement from Rumsfeld, exposed a rift within the Bush administration over the group.

Members of the group surrendered to U.S. forces in Iraq and are now in camps in Northern Iraq but U.S. officials say there are questions about whether they have been fully disarmed.

"I don't know why DOD (the Department of Defense) isn't moving more aggressively against them. It's been an issue," said a State Department official who asked not to be named.

Rice's comments followed a Washington Post report on Sunday that described an easygoing relationship between U.S. soldiers and MEK members in Iraq and that quoted a U.S. sergeant as saying: "The problem is they're still labeled as terrorists, even though we both know they're not."

"The U.S. remains committed to preventing the MEK contained in Iraq from engaging in terrorist activity and to preventing its reconstitution inside Iraq as a terrorist organization," the Rumsfeld statement said. He said MEK "heavy equipment" had been seized but said nothing about its small arms.

Some U.S. officials suggested that the U.S. forces on the ground were moving slowly because they had more pressing worries, such as fending off the rising number of guerrilla attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq.

"They've got these guys penned up, they know where they are, they're not doing anything. They've got a whole country to sort of pacify ... so I think it's a question of means more than anything else," said one official. "It's just basically a question of how do you get everything done that needs to be done as quickly as everybody wants it to get done."

Sunday, November 09, 2003

In a Delicate Balancing Act, U.S. Woos Iranian Group in Iraq

In a Delicate Balancing Act, U.S. Woos Iranian Group in Iraq

Washington Post
November 9, 2003
By Karl Vick

KHALIS, Iraq -- Listed as a terrorist organization by the United States and bombed by U.S. warplanes during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the armed Iranian opposition group known as People's Mujaheddin remains in its customary quarters about 50 miles north of Baghdad. The sprawling, dun-colored compound is named Camp Ashraf, and the 3,800 men and women inside are technically prisoners of the United States.

But it's not entirely clear who's in charge there, as quickly became evident one recent day when a car rolled to a stop at the main gate.

The driver was approached by a slender, bespectacled man in green fatigues who identified himself as Mohammad Hassan, an officer of the mujaheddin. After asking whom the driver came to see, Hassan phoned to confirm the appointment with another mujaheddin official inside the compound. The barrier was then lifted by a mujaheddin sentry who emerged from one of three tidy guard trailers.

In the shade under camouflage netting, three U.S. soldiers watched the encounter. "They challenge, we don't," explained one.

"No, we are not prisoners," said Hassan, smiling mischievously. "Why would we be prisoners?"

The scene reflects the confusion and ambiguity that the People's Mujaheddin, or MEK, inspires here and in Washington six months after the group's longtime patron, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, was toppled from power.

Inside Iraq, the mujaheddin are regarded as Hussein's private army. The Iraqi dictator gave the Iranian group Camp Ashraf and a half-dozen other installations around Iraq. He equipped them with tanks, artillery and armored personnel carriers.

In 1991, when Iraq's Shiite Muslim and Kurdish populations answered the call of then-President George H.W. Bush to rise up and overthrow Hussein, mujaheddin tanks rode to the dictator's rescue. The Iranian exiles opened fire on Kurds and blocked roads leading south, where Hussein's remaining regular forces had their hands full with the Shiites.

"They were worse than the Iraqi army, because they weren't Iraqis," said Muhsim Ali Akbar, a Kurdish official in Khanaqin, where the mujaheddin sent tanks. "They didn't care."

"In 1991 they killed three army deserters who had returned to their families. The MEK feared they would start a rebellion, so they shot them," said Mustafa Hamid Azawi, a resident of Khalis, a majority-Shiite town that mujaheddin armor surrounded.

"The people here think the Americans are protecting the mujaheddin to use them against Iran the way Saddam used them against the Iraqi people," Azawi said. "Everyone says this."

Indeed, for some U.S. officials, whatever the mujaheddin did in Iraq may be of less importance than what it wants to do in its native Iran. The group, which supported the 1979 Islamic revolution against Iran's monarchy, soon split with the country's Islamic government and fled Iran in the early 1980s. During its 17 years in Iraq, the group -- supported by fund-raisers abroad and an influential Washington lobby -- also mounted intermittent if largely ineffectual military forays across the border into Iran.

Now, as the Bush administration wrestles with the question of what to do about Iran, some argue for putting the mujaheddin to use again.

"The problem is they're still labeled as terrorists, even though we both know they're not," said Sgt. William Sutherland, explaining why a reporter could not enter Camp Ashraf. "Much as I'd like to go and do a story myself on how they're not terrorists -- rather, they're patriots -- it's not going to happen until they get put on the green list."

The administration is divided along familiar lines over the mujaheddin, much as it is over policy toward Tehran.

The State Department has shown little sympathy for the mujaheddin since adding the group to its official list of terrorist organizations in 1999. The citation noted the assassination of a half-dozen U.S. military advisers in Iran during the 1970s. Last month, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell wrote Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to remind the Pentagon that the mujaheddin's forces in Iraq are supposed to be U.S. captives, not allies.

At Camp Ashraf, however, U.S. soldiers idling in the chalky dust outside the compound said they were uncertain even whether they were guards. "It's kind of hard to say," said a sergeant who declined to give his name.

Do prisoners invite guards over for dinner? The mujaheddin hosted a banquet for the Americans, laying out a spread of chicken and French fries after showing off a new museum dedicated to the history of their struggle.

That history confused Cpl. Sandro Navarro. The tank gunner from Bloomington, Calif., said he grasped the group's opposition to Iran's theocratic government but not its alliance with Hussein.

"It's kind of weird how in a dictatorship these people were trying to fight for a totally different cause," said Navarro. "That's why I just say, 'I hope your goals and desires are met.' And behind the dark scenes, who knows what's going on?"

In nearby Khalis, residents express the same confusion. Under Hussein's rule, said Mustafa Khidr, "they used to go around town like bullies" in Toyota trucks that Iraqis learned to give a wide berth. Now those trucks travel without a heavy machine gun mounted in the back, but they are always escorted by at least one American Humvee.

"If the Americans were to step aside, the local population would attack them," said Abdulrahman Abdulmehdi. "This is for sure, because they killed many people."

In the final days of the war, U.S. Special Forces did call in airstrikes on mujaheddin positions north of Baghdad. Analysts attributed the strikes to a combination of genuine concern about the mujaheddin's battlefield potential and a gentleman's agreement struck with Iranian officials in the run-up to the war. Iran agreed to passively support the U.S. campaign against Hussein -- a sworn enemy of Iran -- but asked that the mujaheddin be disposed of. In return, Iran agreed to overlook violations of its airspace, including rescue of American pilots who might parachute into Iran.

But after several U.S. airstrikes, mujaheddin commanders negotiated a truce with the Pentagon. The terms allowed the mujaheddin to keep their armor for almost a month, at a time when other armed groups in Iraq were being immediately separated from their weapons, prompting speculation that the Bush administration saw potential in what Iraqis regard as a mercenary force.

The fate of the group is being watched closely by Iran, whose government is split between reformers and hard-line conservatives. Both factions have warned repeatedly that Washington's actions toward the mujaheddin will demonstrate the sincerity of the Bush administration's war on terrorism. Some Iranian officials privately say their government cannot surrender senior al Qaeda figures currently detained in Iran unless at least mujaheddin leaders are returned there.

The neighbors in Iraq are curious, too. A steady stream of civilians arrives at the Ashraf gate each day, many asking what the mujaheddin have for sale. For reasons that only deepen the mystery surrounding the future of the group, it has taken to auctioning stoves, refrigerators -- and even cars.

"No, no cars today," said Sheik Kadhan Hussein Ali, walking away from the Ashraf gate the other day. He had traveled about 30 miles hoping for a bargain, and though disappointed, said he would come again.

"They are selling their cars because they hope the Americans will provide them with new cars," Ali said. "Yes. They told me."