Status of MEK Members Held in Iraq Prompts Debate
SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
Coming up, climate change comes to the Sky Islands. But first, the next round of talks in Baghdad between the U.S. and Iran is expected to take place before the end of July. One issue of particular interest to Iran is the presence in Iraq of more than 3,000 militants of the Mujahideen cult of the People's Mujahideen.
Until the U.S. invasion of Iraq, this group carried out cross-border attacks against the government in Tehran aided by Saddam Hussein. Since the invasion, the MEK, as it's known, has been confined to a base in Iraq under the control of U.S. forces. In Tehran, an effort has emerged to persuade MEK members to return home.
NPR's Mike Shuster has more from Tehran.
MIKE SHUSTER: Arash Semitapur(ph) is a fresh-faced young man with unkempt black hair. Eager to police, he doesn't look like a terrorist or an assassin. Only his false right hand suggests something may have been amiss in his past.
Semitapur is one of the leaders of the Najat Society here in Iran. Najat means salvation and its goal is to bring the Iranians of the MEK home. Semitapur joined the MEK in the 1990s, recruited as a naive college student in Virginia. Eventually, he made his way to a training base in Iraq. And in 2001, he was sent over the border with automatic rifles, ammunition, grenades and two cyanide pills in his mouth.
Mr. ARASH SEMITAPUR (Leader, Najat Society, Iran; MEK Member): That was like the street order we had that when you entered in Iranian territory, you have to have the cyanide pills in your mouth. We were convinced that if we get arrested here by the securities, we will be tortured to death. And we were told that the easiest way is just to have the cyanide pills and chew them if you are getting arrested. Then you will be a hero. You will be a martyr.
SHUSTER: Semitapur's mission was to assassinate an Iranian general in Tehran, but everything went wrong and he was arrested. Even the cyanide pills did not kill him.
Mr. SEMITAPUR: Of course, my handgun was jammed and it didn't work. And I was taken to the police station. There they didn't search me. I had a hand grenade, like a small grenade in my pocket. Again, with the street orders of the organization, I tried to commit a suicide again so I exploded the grenade in my hand, but fortunately didn't kill me.
SHUSTER: Because Semitapur didn't kill anyone he served just four years in prison. When he got out, he joined the Najat Society to try to convince others of what he calls the MEK cult to return to Iran. The Najat Society also helps the families of MEK members to visit Iraq and try to persuade their loved ones to come home.
After the U.S. invasion, Masumai Rasahid(ph) tried to bring her son Sayed(ph) home. So far, she has not been successful.
Ms. MASUMAI RASAHID (Resident, Iran): (Through Translator) They're completely brainwashed and even they don't trust us. When my son accuses me as his mother that you got money from the Islamic government to come here, to persuade me and convince me to go back. And she says I'm your mother, how can I cheat you? And this is the way they taught you and they do not trust and believe nobody.
SHUSTER: The MEK is confined to Camp Ashraf, about a hundred miles north of Baghdad. When U.S. forces seized the camp, they disarmed the MEK and took possession of hundreds of tanks, artillery pieces and other military hardware. The State Department considers the MEK a terrorist group.
The U.S. has permitted family members to visit Camp Ashraf. Masumai Rasahid has been there to see her son four times.
Ms. RASAHID: (Through Translator) When he met me, he had a very bad reaction in front of everybody. He screamed at me and yelled at me. His friends told me that he was forced to do that. The last time that we met, it was much better. They let us stay for the night in the camp with him, and he was a little better than the previous time.
SHUSTER: The last time Masumai Rasahid saw her son was in 2004. Since then, it's been far too dangerous to make the trip. The U.S. has been unable to decide just what to do with the MEK. The Iranian government has reportedly offered to exchange some al-Qaida members it says it is holding for the leaders of the MEK, permitting the rank and file to return to Iran to be reunited with their families.
Some U.S. officials have suggested sending the MEK to a third country. Others have argued that the U.S. should continue to hold the MEK as a bargaining chip and even use them for covert operations against Iran in retaliation for attacks that the U.S. says Iran is behind in Iraq.
Arash Semitapur(ph) urges Washington not to be tempted to use the group against the Iranian government.
Mr. SEMITAPUR: Maybe there are some people in U.S. government who would think that they are useful for them, but I don't think that they are so naive that they can trust these guys.
SHUSTER: Semitapur argues for a more humanitarian solution to the problem -helping the families to spend more time in Baghdad or in bordertowns with MEK members. That way, he says, many will decide to come home. So far, according to the Najat Society, since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, about 300 MEK members have returned to Iran and are now living with their families.
Mike Shuster, NPR News, Tehran.
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