As the coalition bombs hit the flat salt plains on the north-eastern border of Iraq, members of a little known, female-led Iranian army huddled in a bunker. While the earth shook, showering dust on their neatly pressed khaki headscarves, 25-year old Laleh Tarighi and her fellow combatants tried to protect themselves.
Eighteen months later, recalling the terror of being attacked by British and US bombers during the invasion of Iraq last year, Tarighi, a former pupil of Parkside and Hill Road School in Cambridge, says: "We were puzzled more than afraid. We knew our officers had sent messages to the Pentagon insisting that we were neutral and shouldn't be attacked. We were only in Iraq to overthrow the Islamic fundamentalist regime across the border in Iran."
It is hard to imagine that Tarighi was once a typical British teenager who loved going to the cinema and socialising in cafés. Few of her friends knew that when she was a child in Iran, her father had been executed for being a member of the Iranian resistance, and that her mother was a high-ranking commander in the National Liberation Army of Iran (NLA). After A-levels, Tarighi had planned to study media at university, but then, aged 18, she decided to leave the comfort of the home she shared with her aunt to join her mother in the NLA in a military camp on the Iran-Iraq border.
The NLA is the military wing of the National Council of the Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a female-dominated, Iranian parliament-in-exile whose aim is to topple the Islamic fundamentalist regime and replace it with a secular, democratic government. The NCRI is led by a charismatic Iranian, Maryam Rajavi, 53. Security around her is tight for fear of assassination attempts, and she very rarely appears in public. Her organisation has kept a low profile until it recently started sharing intelligence reports on Iran's nuclear programme with America and Europe.
But, in spite of this co-operation, the NLA is still considered a terrorist organisation by the West. The coalition forces in Iraq have restricted its 3,800 combatants to their camps, and their weapons have been confiscated. Women make up 30 per cent of the NLA, but 70 per cent of the officers are female. The British Army has just one female brigadier, while in the Navy there are four female captains.
Rajavi has long encouraged female participation in the army. She argues that, as misogyny is the mainstay of the Iranian government, who better to strike at it than women? Her female recruits, many of whom had been tortured and imprisoned in Iran, train alongside men in all aspects of frontline battle, including hand-to-hand combat and armoured vehicle operation. With the backing of wealthy Iranian exiles, they are preparing for the day when the order comes to march east over the frontier to liberate their land from the mullahs.
Tarighi is one of hundreds of sons and daughters of Iranian exiles in Europe, America and Canada who have volunteered to join the army since its inception in 1987, when Saddam Hussein allowed the NLA to build its camps along the Iranian border. Until Saddam's fall in March last year, the NLA had been able to build up its military force under the watchful eye of its host.
When Tarighi arrived in Iraq in 1997, she was still sporting a stud in her tongue and wearing trainers - very different to the army's uniform for women of khaki headscarves, combat trouser-suits and boots. It was not her first visit to the NLA camp at Ashraf; when her mother fled with her daughter in 1987, they escaped to this camp, where they lived for four years.
The Gulf War in 1991 meant that all the camp's children were evacuated to foster-carers in the West. "I grew up in Cambridge from the age of 10. My life was pretty much there," Tarighi says. "After I passed my A-levels, I decided to spend a gap year in France before going off to university.
"But I got news that my mother had sent me a letter, care of the NCRI headquarters in Paris. It was the first letter I'd received in a long time, and it was very affectionate. I talked to NCRI members and decided to go and join my mother. We hadn't seen each other for eight years. I knew her immediately I saw her, but she didn't recognise me. I looked like any other British girl, and she wasn't too pleased about my tongue stud.
"At first it was difficult living back in the camp, and I missed a lot of things, especially, believe it or not, the English weather. I love rain, and there wasn't a lot of it in Iraq. But it was the friends I made in the camp, and the support and encouragement I received, that carried me through. I did marching drills and learnt to fire a Kalashnikov. I had never seen a gun in England. I didn't join the NLA for my mother, but for Iran. The regime murdered my father, and my grandmother had been in prison there many times. Resistance is in my blood."
Ashraf is 14 square miles of impeccable tidiness. The first impression is of a holiday camp rather than a military base. Eucalyptus trees line long driveways, men and women tend gardens, and there's the smell of bread from the bakery. Since Tarighi arrived at the camp in 1997, a swimming pool and an exhibition room have been built.
But in that time the cemetery, decorated with plastic flowers, has expanded. In the past 18 months, 40 soldiers have been killed in coalition attacks and, after these assaults, by Iran's Revolutionary Guards, who then found it easier to slip across into Iraq. The NLA tanks and artillery that once patrolled and guarded the base have disappeared; in their place, American military police guard the entry checkpoint with tanks and patrol the base in armoured Humvees.
The growing danger meant that Tarighi left the camp soon after the bombing. Now she works in NCRI offices around Europe, still hankering for her army life. But another British girl, Sharobeh Barooti, 19, stayed on. She is one of several hundred combatants with European passports or residency rights who remain at Ashraf. Born in France, Barooti is an only child whose parents are in the Iranian resistance. She doesn't know where they are, although she receives occasional letters.
Barooti moved to the UK in 1991 to live with an aunt and uncle, but by the time she was 15, at Edgware High School in north London, she knew she wanted to join the NLA. "I had heard a lot about the Iranian regime from my aunt and uncle, and I began to feel I should do something. I went to the NCRI office in London and told them I wanted to join. They gave me information and arranged for my travel to Baghdad." She dropped out of her GCSE studies and travelled to Iraq, where she was met by officials of the People's Mojahideen of Iran (PMoI) - the most significant group within the NCRI - and escorted to Ashraf camp.
Sitting in the camp's library, she recalls that her friends thought she was mad. "After all, families are not torn apart in Britain, people aren't tortured, and women can achieve anything," she says. "In Iran, women's lives are limited and they are punished for the smallest things.
"When I arrived here, it was the hardest thing to obey different rules. It was so different from my life in London. For a year, I thought about the future I could have had in Britain and compared it to my future here. I had thought about travelling the world and opening an art gallery."
Several weeks after the fall of Saddam, the US General Ray Odierno of the 4th Infantry division entered Ashraf camp to negotiate the disarming of the NLA. He found himself in a room lined with cream Regency furniture and Persian rugs, drinking coffee from white and gold china cups and eating homemade sweetmeats with a group of female army commanders considered to be terrorists by his government.
In 1997, President Bill Clinton had declared the PMoI and NLA to be terrorist organisations, as a goodwill gesture towards Iran's newly elected President Mohammed Khatami. Recently, the NLA's potential to be used as a bargaining chip by Washington has been noted as tensions rise over Tehran's meddling in Iraq. But on his visit the US general, clearly impressed, said that he thought the terrorist status of the NLA combatants should be reviewed.
The disarmed NLA keeps up its training on computers, and the US military police in the camp are their sole protection against attacks by the Tehran-backed groups now moving freely around Iraq. "If the Americans don't protect them, there will be a bloodbath," says Capt Ismael Ibrahim of the Iraqi National Gathering party.
Only in July, when the NLA came under the protection of the Fourth Geneva Convention (relating to the protection of civilians in wartime), did its members feel safer. They no longer face the possibility of being handed over to Tehran by America in exchange for high-ranking al-Qa'ida members. As Captain Ibrahim says: "I think in a few years the US may think of doing to Iran what they have done to Afghanistan and Iraq, and will try to use the PMoI and NLA."
This is not what the resistance likes to hear, but in the long term this thinking could help the NLA and PMoI lose their terrorist tags. In May 2000, Britain included the PMoI in a list of 21 terrorist organisations under the Terrorism Act. A year later, the European Union added the PMoI to its list.
Mojgan Parsai, the secretary general of the PMoI, said in October: "From the outset, the terror label on the PMoI lacked a legal basis. We are blacklisted in the framework of commercial and political deals with Tehran." Her comments came as France, Germany and Britain were reported to have promised Iran that if steps were taken to halt work on completing its nuclear fuel cycle, the European side would continue to regard the PMoI as a terrorist organisation.
At a conference of human-rights lawyers in Paris last month, Bill Bowring, professor of human rights and international law at London Metropolitan University, said: "Under the definition of the Terrorism Act, Greenpeace and Amnesty International should be on the terrorist list. It was a completely arbitrary decision to include the PMoI on the list."
Also at the conference was the Danish human-rights lawyer, Anne Land. Earlier this year, she visited Ashraf camp. She is aware that the NCRI is accused by its critics of being a cult, and that some consider both the NCRI and the NLA to be militarily and politically ineffective.
"The real importance of this army has been overlooked," she says. "In Iraq, many women were able to go to school and university, to work and to wear what they wanted. Now, they are being intimidated in the streets for not covering their bodies, or for just being outside their homes. Groups of men strongly influenced by Iranian fundamentalists, who are apparently supporting some political and religious groups in Iraq, are making their lives miserable.
"The presence of a female-dominated army prepared to fight the mullahs and Iran's Revolutionary Guards is a powerful symbol to all women in the region. Its effectiveness is not in its military might. The fact that the army exists at all is a huge threat to all male-dominated fundamentalist regimes. It shows what women can do.
"The women in Ashraf say they don't want to leave until they have overthrown the regime in Iran. Unfortunately, they don't see their courage as having a wider, inspiring influence beyond Iran," Land says.
It was the treatment of women in Iran that moved Barooti and Tarighi to join the NLA. "My aunt used to tell me how Revolutionary Guards would stop women in the streets and wipe off their lipstick with the blade of a knife," Barooti says.
Tarighi says she cannot forget the harrowing pictures of a young woman her own age buried to her neck and stoned to death by a crowd. She asks: "Why am I a terrorist because I fight for my sisters' rights?"Reuse content