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Iranian Group Fights for Survival

June 28, 2003

AUVERS-SUR-OISE, France (AP) _ She feels weak, but 52-year-old Zari Shayesteh says she will continue her hunger strike until death if necessary to help free a leader of Iran’s most powerful opposition group from a French jail.

Such ardor, the mother of four says, pales against the protests of eight other Iranians who set themselves ablaze to denounce the jailing of Maryam Rajavi, a leader of the Mujahedeen Khalq, which seeks to bring down Iran’s clerical government. Two women _ one in London and one in Paris _ died of their burns.

Rajavi and 150 others were detained in a massive June 17 raid that some say may unravel an organization whose Iraq-based army was disarmed by U.S. forces in May. Eleven members were imprisoned on terrorism-related charges.

With neither a leader nor a sanctuary in Iraq or in Europe, ``they are finished as a political organization,″ said Fariba Adelkhah, an Iran expert at the International Center for Research and Studies.

Though the group has never gained widespread sympathy among the Iranian diaspora, the protesters in France show just how committed some followers are.

``It’s not the first time this has happened to the Mujahedeen,″ said Sara Mirzakani, 42, of Ottawa, Canada. ``There is something about this organization that makes them find their way out.″

The sweep shocked the opposition movement, whose office here had been protected by French police for the past two decades.

Shayesteh, who lives in the Netherlands, is one of 170 supporters who lie on blankets on a country road beside the walled compound housing the group’s political wing, the National Council of Resistance. Each hunger striker wears a number. Shayesteh is No. 67.

``I’m a mother. I love my children,″ Shayesteh said. ``But my people and my country are more important than my life and my children.″

Founded in 1965 as a guerrilla group fighting the former Iranian monarchy, the Mujahedeen Khalq added a political arm in exile in 1981, then created its army in Iraq.

Washington and the European Union call it a terrorist organization, in part for attacks in Iran, where civilians have been killed.

France’s counterintelligence organization, the DST, says the organization is a sect. They say there is a personality cult around Maryam Rajavi _ ``president-elect″ of a future Iran _ and her co-leader husband Massoud, still said to be in Iraq.

Maryam Rajavi, who left Iraq in April, is under investigation for membership in a criminal organization linked to a terrorist enterprise and for financing terrorism. Police found some $9 million inside the compound.

The DST claims the group planned attacks against Iranian diplomatic missions in Europe and former members collaborating with Iranian intelligence, adding that they wanted to turn the compound into a nerve center for terrorism.

The Mujahedeen Khalq denies the charges, saying the organization abides by the law in countries outside Iran.

``What France is doing is the result of a dirty deal with the mullahs (religious leaders) at a time when the Iranian regime is on the ropes,″ spokesman Shain Gobadi said, referring in part to growing Western pressure for more intrusive nuclear inspections.

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin has said the raid was a ``strictly″ judicial affair based on an investigation in progress.

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