WASHINGTON -- Being a foreign correspondent brings you face-to-face with some distinctly odd and surprising overseas news sources, and in the fall of 1981, I paid an unlikely visit to one of these.
I took a car from the Paris airport that day to Auvers-Sur-Oise, a leafy, upscale suburb of the City of Light, to see an impressive young Iranian thinker and political figure, probably then in his 40s, who was the leader of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq or the "People's Strugglers." His name was Massoud Rajavi, and he was highly "wanted" back home in Iran.
Remember, this was only two years after the cruel and harshly Islamic regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini had taken over from a destroyed Shah of Iran, a year after the American hostages were taken in Tehran, and only shortly after Rajavi's "Strugglers" had originally supported Khomeini.
In his brother's simple middle-class apartment, I found a slight young man, maybe 5 foot 7, with a handsome face and the kind of intense manner one finds easily in the passionate history of Persia. As he talked, I found him to be one of the most intelligent, persuasive and rational leaders I had met. His eyes flashed and his words sparkled. It was easy to see the leader in him, and when I asked him what guarantee he could give me that his group would not govern as oppressively as Khomeini or the shah, he answered soberly:
"I only draw your attention to our practical record. Our movement has behind us 17 years of fighting, and for what? For democracy and for independence! Khomeini asked us many times to rule with him. If we were not a sincere generation, we could be with Khomeini, ruling."
Reliable neutral sources told me at the time that there were some 25,000 of his guerrillas fighting against the retrogressive Persian Islamic Shiite state, and that they were intellectually the "best and the brightest," ideologically leftist, authoritarian and Muslim, with power flowing from a central committee to cells. Khomeini had executed 3,000 of them, but every year hundreds of thousands demonstrated on their behalf across Europe.
And then we come to last week and to the mujahedeen's compound, Camp Ashraf, on the outskirts of Baghdad. The key to this puzzle lies in the fact that the camp, where several thousand mujahedeen moved from Paris to fight against Khomeini in the 1980s, has been protected by American troops for the last six years. The mujahedeen, after all, had provided Washington with highly classified information on Tehran's nuclear program, and over the years, Washington kept alternating between defending the organization and placing it on its terrorist list. But now something new and revealing was happening.
The last week of July, after promising the U.S. it would not attack the mujahedeen, the U.S.-installed and largely Shiite government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki moved into the camp -- with troops and guns and ne'er a whisper of restraint! Reports are that at least 12 have been killed and some 500 wounded. American officials bitterly complained and at least one U.S. Army captain got into a shouting match with an Iraqi officer at the camp's gates after the Iraqis banned pesky journalists from speaking with the mujahedeen.
This, to talk plainly, is what Shiite Tehran wants -- to get rid of these Rajavi guys once and for all -- and more and more, "our" al-Maliki government is showing that it is more pro-Iranian Shiite and less a "united" government of Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Christians and other minorities that exists only in the Americans' utopian minds. But really, why should anyone have been surprised?
In fact, one has to hand it to al-Maliki, with his bland, expressionless visage and manner. When we put him in and got him elected, the American criticism of him was that he didn't do anything. Now that we are leaving, he is suddenly doing everything. Since early spring, he and his Iraqi Army have been arresting dozens of Iraqi Sunnis, former anti-American dissidents whom the U.S. military had successfully organized into a pro-American "Awakening" movement.
To win over the Awakening members was rightly considered an American "victory" at the time. But now the Shiites in the government's Dawa Party are systematically disbanding these Sunni organizations, while at the same time, upping the ante on an increasingly dangerous fight with the Kurds in the north over the Kirkuk oilfields.
As Anthony Shadid, the excellent Washington Post correspondent, wrote this week: "Maliki seems to be playing an aggressive game with the Americans as well. No one missed the fact that the raid on the camp began as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived in Iraq -- either a sign of poor planning on Maliki's part or disregard for the U.S. reaction."
And so, ironically, just as the mad mullahs of Tehran are busy putting on trial dozens of the reformers in the recent street demonstrations against the government, "our" government in Baghdad will soon almost surely be sending the mujahedeen, who only have Iranian passports, back to prison and very likely death in Tehran.
What a quiet man, this al-Maliki! He couldn't seem to move one foot after the other in his first days as leader or barely even stay awake. Yet now he's emerging as the newest anti-American Iraqi strongman in a long historic line. Saddam Hussein was never one for small talk, either -- but at least he didn't sell out his country.