BY JEFF WHELAN AND DAVID KINNEY
One day after it became an issue in his re-election campaign, U.S.Sen. Robert Torricelli yesterday abandoned his efforts to get anIranian resistance group dropped from the State Department's list ofterrorist organizations.
On Thursday, Republican Senate candidate Douglas Forrestercriticized Torricelli for accepting campaign contributions fromsupporters of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq and lobbying the State Departmenton the organization's behalf. Torricelli defended his efforts, sayingthe group's goal of overthrowing the Iranian government offered thebest hope for democracy in Iran.
For years, Torricelli has been one of the group's biggest backersin Congress, staging news conferences, attending rallies andenlisting colleagues to support its cause. At a news conferenceyesterday afternoon, he continued that support, noting that more than200 members of Congress have signed letters saying the U.S.government should open a dialogue with the organization.
But last night, after his campaign was notified that four fellowSenators contacted yesterday by The Star-Ledger had backed off theirsupport for the group and the State Department issued harsh wordsagainst the organization, Torricelli began to distance himself fromthe Mujahedin-e-Khalq.
The senator said he may have accepted contributions prior to 1996from a handful of Iranian- Americans involved with the group.However, that the organization was not yet identified as a terroristoutfit by the State Department at that time, he said.
He also said that he would no longer seek to have the groupdropped from the terrorist list because it did not fit in with theBush administration's efforts to maintain relations with the Iraniangovernment.
"At this point, it's just not productive to continue with this,"Torricelli said. "If the organization is engaging in activitiesagainst civilians that are of terrorist nature, the State Departmenthas every right to ban their activities and have no contact withthem."
That was a sharp contrast with what Torricelli said on Thursdaynight during the debate. Responding to Forrester's attacks, hedescribed the group as "Iranians who oppose the Iranian government."He also said -- erroneously -- that it had been dropped from theState Department's terrorist list at the urging of a federal court.Ken Snyder, Torricelli's campaign spokesman, said yesterday that "hemisspoke in the heat of the moment."
As recently as Thursday, the White House cited the Mujahedin-e-Khalq as President Bush made his case for ousting Iraqi leaderSaddam Hussein. A background paper released before the President'sspeech to the United Nations identified the group as a terroristorganization responsible for killing Americans civilians and militarypersonnel in the 1970s, and faulted Saddam for sheltering itsmembers. The State Department has previously reported that Iraqprovides the group with bases, training and material support.
The State Department reports that the Mujahedin-e-Khalq -- alsoknown by other names including the People's Mujahedin Organization ofIran -- supported the 1979 hostage-taking at the U.S. Embassy inTehran, and helped Saddam quell the Kurdish rebellion following thePersian Gulf War.
"These people are responsible for the deaths of civilians --premeditated, politically motivated attacks against civilians. Andthese are attacks that have killed Americans. That constitutesterrorism," said Greg Sullivan, a spokesman for the StateDepartment's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.
Sullivan also took issue with Torricelli's contention that theorganization offers hope for democracy in Iran.
"We emphatically disagree with that view. We don't feel that aterrorist group, offers anything for the leadership in Iran. We'veseen a movement of the Iranian people themselves," Sullivan said.
Before Sept. 11, Torricelli wrote a letter to Secretary of StateColin Powell saying the members of the group were "not our enemies,they are our allies." On March 23, 2001, Torricelli and Sen.Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) circulated a "Dear Colleague" letter thatexpressed support for the group and was signed by 29 other Senators.
But yesterday, Ernie Blazar, a spokesman for Bond, said Bond begandistancing himself from the group in March 2002.
"Sen. Bond's previous support was always conditioned on thisgroup's rejection of terrorism," said Blazar. "Since 9/11, and inlight of the very fluid Middle East situation ... his support forthis group has been held in abeyance."
Sens. George Allen (R-Va.), Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and JamesInhofe (R-Okla.) expressed similar sentiments through theirspokespersons, who said yesterday that the senators were not aware ofthe group's terrorist connections when they signed the letter.
"We would not be supporting a group that is engaged in terrorismor is actively being supported by Saddam Hussein right now," saidGary Hoitsma, spokesman for Inhofe.
Staff Writer Joe Donohue contributed to this report.
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