Iranian Tank Girls ,     Iranian Tank Girls by Jenny Matthews In 1999 I was commissioned by Marie Claire magazine to go to Iraq with writer Christine Aziz. Our assignment was a story on a group of Iranian exiles (the PMOI - People's Mojahedin Organisation of Iran) who had a military camp of around 3500 people in the desert north of Baghdad. They were practicing for the day when they would launch an attack on Iran and topple the government there. In this army 70% of the officers were women, and a one third of the fighters were also women.  Ever since the early nineties, their leader, Mme Maryam Rajavi, has placed women at the forefront of their battle against the Iranian government. The trip was a great adventure, beginning with an eight-hour ride across the desert from Jordan in a red Mercedes. As soon as we arrived at the camp the picture opportunities began - thousands of fighters on parade, the women wearing photo friendly red headscarves, then off to a tank battle. A delicious lunch was followed by a demonstration by  female commandos. Superficially the story was great - beleaguered woman fighters squaring up to the might of Iran ( men appeared to be were very much in support roles - dancing for us, making bread, serving food - that sort of thing . The story was published, everyone was happy but I've always felt uncomfortable about my part in glorifying women and weapons, and that all was probably not as upbeat as it seemed. Saddam Hussein was using the PMOI to patrol the long border with Iran. The US government has accused the PMOI of being involved in the suppression of the Kurds, and that the actual order came from the PMOI leader at the time Maryam Rajavi. There is, however, no evidence to prove it. Her photo is everywhere on the base, especially in the women's lockers , the nearest they have to any personal space. The group come over as a cult, and some of those who have managed to escape speak of indoctrination and a stranglehold on their lives. At the same time there was great enthusiasm for the tanks - driving, firing and maintaining them. As one young woman, Parveen, explained, ''I'm a gunner on a tank - in the past that was unimaginable. At first it was difficult to lift tank shells. The noise in the turret, the smoke - it was all very alien and difficult, but eventually the tank became like putty in my hands and it got so my heart started to throb when I heard the tank engine'.  Now the tanks are gone. During the shock and awe attack on Iraq in 2003 the base came under fire, there were deaths and injuries. The group was asked to disarm. The tanks, including 19 British made Chieftains, were taken away by the Americans who set up a Forward Operating Base, Camp Grizzly, on the edge of the camp. Some of the camp members had knowledge of the Iranian nuclear programme so they became an asset rather than a liability, although the group is still designated terrorist by Iran and the US. The label has been dropped by the European Council.When we went back to visit in 2003 the fighters were reduced to playing battles on Apple Macs and learning karate and holding concerts of classical music in their huge exhibition and conference hall. Despite being held under the protection of the Geneva Convention,  34 people died in clashes with Iraqi security forces that broke into the camp. When a US congressional delegation tried to visit in June this year Maliki (Prime Minister of Iraq) refused them permission. The latest twist in the tale is that now local farmers (encouraged by the Iraqi government) are demanding their land back and the PMOI has been told to leave by the end of this year.   Iraq's liberal and more secular sections of society support the PMOI and will be sorry to see them go.  It is unclear where members of the former army  will go to- certainly not back to Iran. Many of them have already  served prison sentences there. Its claims to have a lot of support in Iran, but it is difficult to tell. Its links with Saddam Hussein during the tail end of the devastating Iraq-Iran war are not forgotten Driven by a feminism unique to the region  it is despised by the fundamentalist regime it seeks to overthrow. Only time will tell if the PMOI is more than a pawn in the wider politics of the region.
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