PARIS - Iran's main armed opposition group said that the US-led coalition had granted its militants in Iraq protected status, despite its listing as a terrorist organization by both Washington and its key allies.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran said it had received notification from coalition commanders that People's Mujahedeen fighters who have been confined to camp in Iraq since last year's US-led invasion had been accorded recognition as protected non-combattants under the fourth Geneva Convention.
"It is a very significant step because the Iranian regime has been demanding for the past year the People's Mujahedeen be handed back, which would obviously put their lives in danger," said Farid Sulimani, a member of the foreign affairs committee of the Mujahedeen-dominated National Council.
Iran has been pushing for repatriation of the several thousand Mujahedeen fighters under US military guard at Camp Ashraf northeast of Baghdad, and last December Iraq's coalition-installed interim leadership voted unanimously to expel them.
But human rights watchdogs have called on the coalition not to hand over the fighters to an uncertain fate at the hands of their archfoes in Tehran.
The People's Mujahedeen set up base in Iraq in 1986 and carried out regular cross-border raids into Iran, with which Iraq fought a bloody war between 1980 and 1988.
Several thousand Mujahedeen militiamen were disarmed by US forces following the fall of president Saddam Hussein's regime in April 2003 and barred from undertaking military operations.
Their fate has been a prickly question for Washington as it prosecutes its worldwide war on terror, since the group is listed as a terrorist organization by both the US State Department and the European Union.
The National Council statement said that the coalition had undertaken to provide continued protection for the Mujahedeen fighters at Camp Ashraf.
While recognition as protected individuals removes controls on the fighters' movement, potentially allowing them to emigrate to third countries, Sulimani said all were likely to stay as they wanted to remain close to Iran.