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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Friday ordered Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to decide within four months whether to remove an Iranian dissident group from a U.S. terrorism list.
The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit unanimously ruled for the group, Mujahadin-e Khalq, or MEK, which has sought to force the State Department to take it off the list or decide within a specified time period on its request to be removed.
The appeals court ordered Clinton to either grant or deny the group's petition in four months. If she fails to take action in that time, it said it would set aside the U.S. government's designation of the group as a foreign terrorist organization.
The appeals court, however, rejected the group's request for a 30-day deadline.
The State Department, which is reviewing the ruling, intends to comply with the opinion, spokesman Mark Toner said in a written response to a question.
In arguments before the appeals court on May 8, an administration lawyer said Clinton planned to rule on the group's request in about two months, after its refugee camp in Iraq closes.
Iranians who belong to the group have been moving out of its Camp Ashraf base in Iraq to a processing center at a former U.S. military base in Baghdad.
Also known as the People's Mujahideen Organization of Iran, the group led a guerrilla campaign against the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran during the 1970s that included attacks on U.S. targets. It was added to the list in 1997, but the group has said that it has renounced violence.
The group, which has pushed for the overthrow of Iran's clerical leaders, found itself no longer welcome in Iraq under its new Shi'ite-led government that came to power after Saddam Hussein's downfall in 2003.
As a result of the MEK's listing as a foreign terrorist organization, Americans have been barred from supporting the group and its members or representatives have been banned from entering the United States.
The appeals court ruled nearly two years ago that Clinton had violated the group's rights and instructed her to "review and rebut" unclassified parts of the record she initially relied on and say if she regards the sources as sufficiently credible.
It said Clinton had yet to make a final decision. "We believe the secretary's delay in acting on (the group's) petition for revocation is egregious," the appeals court said.
The appeals court said it declined to immediately revoke the group's designation in light of "national security and foreign policy concerns."
Reporting by James Vicini; Editing by Vicki Allen