AUVERS-SUR-OISE, France - The politics of war and terrorism have invaded the rue des Gordes, a sunny lane in the town where Van Gogh died.
Weakened by a hunger strike earlier this week, dozens of Iranian protesters slump alongside walls lining the narrow street. They are tended by women wrapped in Islamic head scarves despite the heat, and by teen-age girls with blond-tinted hair, jeans and T-shirts bearing photos of their leader, Maryam Rajavi.
Brawny French riot policemen keep watch, mindful that more than a dozen militants have immolated themselves to protest the arrest on terrorism charges of Rajavi, a leader of the Mujahedeen Khalq (MEK), the biggest armed resistance group opposing Iran's Islamic government.
"The immolations happened because they see her as a symbol of hope that has been taken away from them," says Shahin Gobadi of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the group's political wing. "It shows the level of their outrage."
But French officials say the human torches on the streets of Paris, London and Rome illustrate the violent nature of a sect-like organization that blends Marxism and Islam. The fall of Saddam Hussein deprived the MEK of military bases in Iraq and of a major financier, increasing the danger that they would resort to terrorist acts against Iranian targets in Europe, according to French officials.
The group has operated in France since 1986, but official tolerance ended June 17: an army of 1,300 police officers - a SWAT team, riot squads and financial investigators - stormed the compound of five villas here. They made 159 arrests, later arraigning Rajavi and 16 others on suspicion of conspiracy and financing terrorism. Most have since been released, but the 17 remain under investigation. Maryam Rajavi was ordered to pay $93,000 bail.
Police also confiscated computers, high-tech communications gear and about $9 million in cash. They found stacks of U.S. currency that allegedly came from donors in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, according to a senior French official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Both the United States and the European Union have designated the MEK a terrorist organization.
U.S. investigators are helping their French counterparts trace the source of the money and its intended use, the senior French official says. Saudi Arabia and Yemen are U.S. allies, but both have taken heat from the West to do more against terrorist activity.
"The question now is why was money coming from Saudi Arabia and Yemen?" the official says. "We are investigating that. We know that the Mujahedeen's military command had retreated here from Iraq and was turning France into their world headquarters. There was intelligence information that they were preparing attacks in Europe. That was why we acted."
The crackdown must also be seen in the context of Paris' relationships with Washington and Tehran. Despite the loud diplomatic dispute over the Iraq war, the case indicates that French-U.S. cooperation continues on security matters.
State Department officials praised the French raid. The FBI and CIA contributed to a two-year investigation of the Iranian group, examining finance and support networks in California and elsewhere in the United States, according to the senior official and others familiar with the case.
France has also sent a message by confronting a group that has posed an armed threat to the Iranian government but has little support in Iran's domestic pro-democracy movement, according to analysts. The French move reinforces a campaign urging Iran to cooperate with the international community to permit inspections of its nuclear program and to get tough with al-Qaida operatives in its territory.
"I think the reasons given by the French government are true, but do not explain everything," says Olivier Roy, a Middle East expert at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. "It is saying to Iran: Very well, we take seriously the threat against you. But in exchange, we want progress on the nuclear inspections and on the possible presence of al-Qaida."
Geopolitics aside, French authorities will have to prove that the MEK posed a concrete threat justifying the police operation ordered by Jean-Louis Bruguiere, France's top anti-terrorist magistrate.
French investigators have determined that Auvers-sur-Oise was a hub where terror attacks in Iran were financed, planned and supervised with the aid of sophisticated technology, according to the senior French official. Fighters were sometimes dispatched from Paris on missions to Iran, according to the official.
Members of the group's political wing say they are stunned. Only three days before Rajavi's arrest, they say, police bodyguards accompanied her to a medical appointment, a service routinely provided by the Interior Ministry because of the potential threat from the Iranian government.