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Inside a group caught between three powers

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Western diplomats and analysts agree that the MKO has very little support inside Iran itself. Though many Iranians take issue with their clerical rulers, MKO members are widely seen to be traitors, as they fought alongside Iraqi troops against Iran in the 1980s.

Most Iraqis, too, have little time for the MKO, which helped Hussein's security forces brutally put down the Kurdish uprising after the Gulf War in 1991, and helped Baghdad quell Shiite unrest in 1999. The group, however, said in a Dec. 11 statement that "throughout its 17 years in Iraq," it had "never" interfered in Iraq's internal affairs.

Last summer, the US State Department outlawed several MKO-affiliated groups in the US. In June, France arrested 150 activists, including self-declared "president-elect" Maryam Rajavi.

The crackdowns sparked some to publicly commit suicide by setting themselves alight - a type of protest that some suggest could be repeated if the MKO is forced out of Iraq.

Within days of the expulsion order, lawyers for the MKO - arguing that expulsion would violate the laws of war - are reported to have sent letters to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others, asking the Pentagon to overrule the move.

A senior Pentagon official told the Monitor Tuesday that the US was exploring the option of sending former MKO members to a country other than Iran.

"They ought to be vetted," he said, "and anyone who is a criminal deserves to be punished somehow. [But] they don't have to go back [to Iran]. If they are not guilty of crimes there are various places they could go."

Bargaining chip

The MKO has already turned into a bargaining chip, Tehran has floated a hand over of the MKO leadership by the US to Iran, in exchange for senior Al Qaeda leaders now in Iran. And the interim government in Iraq is not alone in trying to disband the MKO. Former members now back in Iran run an agency called the Nejat "Freedom" Committee, which aims to reunite hundreds of Iranian families with MKO militants.

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