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Government is Supporting Terrorists: From the Hill; Newspaper for and About the U.S. Congr

Some members of Congress are refusing to drop their support of a Middle Eastern group, even though the State Department says its terrorist fighters are attacking U.S. and coalition troops in southern Iraq.
APRIL 2, 2003

Iran 'terrorist' group finds support on Hill
By Sam Dealey

Some members of Congress are refusing to drop their support of a Middle Eastern group, even though the State Department says its terrorist fighters are attacking U.S. and coalition troops in southern Iraq.

The group, known as the National Council of Resistance (NCR), is the political arm of the Mujahedin-e Kalq (MEK), an organization of Iranian dissidents backed by Saddam Hussein.

PATRICK RYAN
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) supports controversial group.

"They're a combatant," said Greg Sullivan, a spokesman for the State Department's Near East Affairs bureau. "They're being targeted. Targeting data is being provided to the Pentagon. We believe they are undertaking some of the action in the south [of Iraq] where enemy combatants have disguised themselves as civilians."

A spokesman for Central Command in Doha, Qatar, was unable to confirm that MEK forces had been engaged.

Representatives of the MEK did not return calls seeking comment.

Despite its terrorist designation, the group has amassed powerful allies on Capitol Hill, including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the International Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia.

Ros-Lehtinen has written a number of letters in support of the group, both public and private, urging the State Department to remove the MEK's terrorist designation. Her most recent public letter was a Dear Colleague released last November.

Ros-Lehtinen said her support remains unchanged. "It's a confusing time right now," she said. "We have to sort out the facts. It's too premature to say what the facts are. Not everyone who speaks for a group represents that group."

Ros-Lehtinen referred further questions to her staff director, Ylem Poblete, who said there is "no change" in the congresswoman's backing of the MEK.

But Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), another MEK champion, was initially appalled when told that MEK forces have engaged coalition forces.

"If that's occurred, if they have done this, they have certainly ruined whatever modicum of support they have here, at least from me," he said. "If these reports are accurate, that's the end of it for me."

Tancredo later called The Hill to say he had "received information of a different nature entirely from people who are closer to the scene than the State Department."

He would not identify the source or content of the information, except to say it came from "our government." The State Department flatly dismissed Tancredo's claims.

Other House lawmakers who have been vocal supporters of the MEK in the past include Reps. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas). It was not clear at press time whether these members will continue that support.

Last week, Reuters reported that U.S. forces attacked and destroyed two MEK bases in Iraq. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported Thursday that Masud Rajavi, the group's leader, has relocated MEK headquarters to the private residence of General Ali Hassan al-Majid, a cousin of Saddam Hussein and one of his most trusted deputies. He earned the nickname "Chemical Ali" for his involvement in the campaign to suppress ethnic Kurds in northern Iraq.

Since 1995, the State Department has routinely classified the MEK and its various appendages as a terrorist organization. The MEK is believed responsible for a number of deadly actions against overseas Americans, and participated in the 1979 U.S. Embassy seizure in Tehran.

The White House names the group as evidence of Hussein's support for international terrorism. The United Kingdom and the European Union have also designated the MEK as a terrorist organization.

Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), one of the MEK's fiercest congressional opponents, said: "They're definitely engaged."

Ney, who at one point supported the group, explained the MEK's continued support on the Hill as anti-Iranian zeal. "I think a lot of people just hear [MEK] folks coming in saying, 'We're for democracy.'"

He continued, "These members [who support the MEK] are American members of Congress. I don't question their patriotism or their loyalty to the United States. But on this issue, they just aren't looking at the facts."

Sullivan concurred, saying the MEK's Washington representatives "conceal [the group's nature] by covering it in an anti-Iranian message. In fairness to those on the Hill, I don't think they have any idea who these people are. They walk into an office and start spouting an anti-Iranian message."

Ros-Lehtinen says 150 members signed on to the most recent letter. According to a November press release from her office, "Among the 150 co-signers ... are 30 committee and subcommittee chairs and 35 committee and subcommittee ranking members."

However, Ros-Lehtinen's office would not release the names of the co-signers. "We keep a copy of the list," Poblete said. "It is not for public consumption."

A Ney aide retorted: "It's a bit odd when someone claims to have the support of 150 members of Congress but won't release the list of those names."

Following Ros-Lehtinen's most recent letter in support of the MEK, Henry Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations committee, wrote to members of Congress criticizing the group.

A number of members contacted by The Hill said they initially signed Ros-Lehtinen's letter of support but asked that their names be removed after receiving more information about the MEK.

"Congresswoman [Deborah] Pryce [R-Ohio] did remove her name from the letter as soon as she found out that the State Department had concerns about the group," said a spokeswoman for the Republican Conference.

Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) also removed his name. "Getting people to sign on to 'Dear Colleagues' is as easy as going around trying to get people to eat birthday cake," said spokesman Doug Heye, adding that Pombo's office was not initially made aware of the group's background.

Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) also withdrew his name after learning more about the group. "We will not be signing on to any more of these," his chief of staff said.

According to a highly critical State Department dossier on the MEK in 1994, collecting letters of support from prominent lawmakers is an integral part of the group's public relations campaign. "Through such efforts, the Mojahedin attempt to transform Western opprobrium for the government of Iran into expressions of support for themselves," the report said, adding: "Although [it] claims that it is a democratic organization, its practices do not support the facts."

Ney said he is disturbed that terrorists have such access to U.S. lawmakers. "We better watch those characters coming into the building," he said. "They're a terrorist group. I do not believe that we need to allow them access to our physical Capitol grounds." He said he has spoken with the sergeant at arms about the matter. "If a guy walked in here and said, 'I'm with al Qaeda,' we'd take his money and we'd kick him out."

The State Department says any action against the MEK falls to the Department of Justice. According to Justice, representatives of active terrorist organizations are not necessarily in violation of federal law. "Just because a group is designated as [a foreign terrorist organization] doesn't necessarily make that group illegal," a department spokesman said.

According to federal disclosure records, the group is registered with the Justice Department as a lobbyist under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

The MEK began in the 1960s as an Islamic-Marxist student dissident movement, but it turned violent and, in an effort to overthrow the Shah of Iran, targeted U.S. civilians and property. The group participated in the 1979 siege of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, during which American personnel were held hostage for 444 days.

In 1981, the group fell from favor with the clerics of the Ayatollah Khomeini regime and its members fled, eventually relocating to Baghdad in 1987. According to the 1994 State Department report, "Saddam Hussein has been one of [its] primary financiers, providing weapons and cash totaling an estimated hundreds of millions of dollars."

While most of the group's recent actions have been hit-and-run operations against the Iranian regime, the U.S. intelligence community says the MEK has engaged in grisly efforts by Saddam Hussein to suppress Kurdish and Shiite uprisings in Iraq.
It currently maintains several bases in Iraq, including a recently completed headquarters complex in Falluja, 40 kilometers west of Baghdad, financed by Saddam Hussein.

The political arm of the MEK, the National Council of Resistance, maintains a shadow office in the National Press Building. NCR representatives and supporters claim it poses a legitimate democratic alternative to the Iranian regime, but some experts say it lost all popular support in Iran when it allied itself with Saddam.

The MEK is also known as the People's Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI) and the National Liberation Army (NLA).



 http://www.hillnews.com/news/040203/terrorist.aspx