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Court releases Iranian leader

To the supporters who welcomed her release today from a French jail, Maryam Rajavi, a leader of a controversial Iranian opposition group, is a symbol of democratic hope for Iran. They even call her Iran's president-elect.

To her detractors in the United States and Europe, she's no hero _ she's a terrorist.

Since June 17, Rajavi, a leader of the Mujahedeen e-Khalq (People's Mujahedeen), has been jailed along with eight associates for allegedly plotting terrorist acts in Europe.

During that time, her backers protested in Washington, London and at the People's Mujahedeen headquarters outside Paris. Two of Rajavi's followers died in acts of self-immolation.

Earlier this month, in massive raids in France, authorities initially detained 165 members of the group and locked up 11. More than $9-million in cash was confiscated. All those arrested were released this week, with only Rajavi and another woman ordered to post bond.

It was the latest chapter in the puzzling history of an armed organization that has strong support in the U.S. Congress but, experts say, little following in Iran itself.

Are the People's Mujahedeen freedom fighters or terrorists? Democracy advocates or cult members?

It was once an Islamic-Marxist group whose hatred of the United States and Western capitalism rivaled that of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But the People's Mujahedeen and its political arm, the National Council of Resistance, have worked hard in the past decade to convince U.S. policymakers that the groups can transform Iran into a secular, democratic society.

Skeptics abound. The State Department, which officially designated the People's Mujahedeen a terrorist organization in 1997, recently pressured the Pentagon to disarm the group, which for years had operated in Iraq under the protection of Saddam Hussein.

The American military had flirted with enlisting the Mujahedeen as allies in the effort to reconstruct Iraq and, possibly, destabilize neighboring Iran.

What is clear, though, is that the followers of Maryam Rajavi and her husband, Massoud Rajavi, whose whereabouts are unclear, are emotional and devoted.

On Wednesday, when the French court's decision was announced, jubilation filled a makeshift sidewalk camp that demonstrators had set up across from the French Embassy in Washington.

"I'm very happy!" Mansoureh Mojahedpour, 73, of Fairfax, Va., said in broken English. She said her son had been executed by the fundamentalist mullahs who seized control of Iran in the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Mojahedpour rubbed a poster of Rajavi that she held to her chest and cried.

Critics call the People's Mujahedeen a cult with totalitarian tendencies and say the Rajavis practice a form of thought control over their followers.

In interviews with journalists over the years, former Mujahedeen members have said they were beaten when they tried to leave the group's camps in Iraq. Others claim the Mujahedeen took their children away to be raised by Mujahedeen members in Europe.

But this Jonestown-like image is hard to reconcile with the articulate, well-dressed and reasonable-sounding people who were demonstrating against Maryam Rajavi's arrest.

About half of the protesters in Washington were Muslim men. None found it odd to be following a woman.

"We are sharing our lives with women," said Al Allameh, a Houston computer engineer. "Why should we keep them captive? If you do, society cannot improve."

Such modern-sounding sentiments have won the council support in Washington, where it maintains a lobbying office. Its public relations campaign is focused on convincing U.S. policymakers that it has abandoned its Marxist roots and anti-Western violence.

In the 1970s, the Mujahedeen murdered American military and civilian workers in Tehran and cheered the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in the 1979 Islamic revolution that overthrew the American-backed Shah Reza Pahlavi.

Khomeini, who ran Iran after the Shah's overthrow, did not share power with the Mujahedeen, and Massoud Rajavi fled to France. The Mujahedeen then began a terrorist campaign in Iran, setting off a bomb in the main offices of the Islamic Republic Party in 1981, killing around 70 high-ranking officials.

Near the end of the bitter 1980-88 war between Iraq and Iran, the Mujahedeen began collaborating with Hussein. It helped squash the 1991 uprising of the Kurds in northern Iraq, according to the State Department. Since then, the Mujahedeen has carried out other terrorist acts against Iran, including attacks on its embassies in 13 countries and assassinations of top officials.

Iranian expatriates and Hussein historically have financed the group. Yet in Iran, Iranians cannot forgive the Mujahedeen's alliance with Iraq, detractors say.

"They are very hated people because of the connections they created with Saddam Hussein, who was the sworn enemy of the Iranian people," said Kazem Alamdari, a professor of sociology at California State University in Los Angeles.

Alireza Jafarzadeh, a National Council representative in Washington, disputes these characterizations.

"You would not be able to have this level of support outside Iran if you did not also have support inside Iran," he said.

Still, in the theory that the enemy of your enemy is your friend, the Mujahedeen's congressional supporters still view it as a means of destabilizing Iran's hard-line fundamentalist regime and obtaining intelligence about Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions.

Last year, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, sponsored a letter signed by more than 100 members of Congress _ both Democrats and Republicans _ in support of the Mujahedeen.

"They're very savvy on what the public is attracted by. During the revolution, their way of getting appeal inside Iran was they were the most anti-American, anti-imperialist of all. Now democracy's become replaced by that," said Ervand Abrahamian, a history professor at Baruch College in New York who wrote a book on the Mujahedeen.

The human rights issue remains the National Council's most powerful argument in Washington, where President Bush has labeled Iran part of an "axis of evil."

"As American-Iranians, this is our second home," said Bahman Badiee, president of Iranian Society of South Florida, which sent around 10 members to Washington for the protest. "We have relatives, friends still in Iran. As everybody in the world knows, the dictatorship is killing and torturing people in Iran."