Iraq seeks departure of Iranian opposition exiles

BAGHDAD, Dec 31 (Reuters) – Iraq said on Wednesday it wants thousands of Iranian opposition exiles at a camp north of Baghdad to leave the country, although it does not plan to expel them by force.

Iraqi forces take over responsibility for Camp Ashraf, home to 3,500 exiles of the People’s Mujahideen of Iran, on Jan. 1 as part of a bilateral deal governing the presence of U.S. troops who guarded the camp in the past.

The U.S. embassy said this week some U.S. troops will remain at the camp to help Iraqi authorities protect it after it passes to Iraqi control, but the Iranian exiles say they fear Baghdad may still try to shut it and drive them out.

The People’s Mujahideen fled to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the 1980s and fought with Iraqis during the Iran-Iraq war. U.S. forces declared the exiles “protected persons” after the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam.

Baghdad and Washington both consider the exiles to be a terrorist group. The exiles say they fear that the Shi’ite-led Iraqi government, which has friendly ties with Iran, might bow to Iranian pressure to crack down on them.

“The Iraqi government will deal with the people in this camp in a humane way and according to internationally adopted standards, the Iraqi constitution and Iraqi laws,” Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in a statement.

“The government of Iraq does not have any intention to expel the people of this organisation or force them to leave Iraq. But it calls on those people to find another place outside Iraq in any state that may accept them as refugees, or for those who wish to return to Iran to go of their own free will,” it said.

“Iraq is no longer a suitable place for them because the Iraqi constitution does not permit dealings with an organisation classified as a terrorist group.”

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