Base was used in sabotage and assassination sorties
US fostered sect as tool for regime change in Tehran
Iraq plans to close a camp for Iranian dissidents who used to cross into Iran to mount assassinations and sabotage – a decision that has sharpened political differences between Baghdad and Washington.
Camp Ashraf, about 80 miles north of Baghdad, came under Iraqi control yesterday in a broad security handover that forms part of the US withdrawal agreement concluded late last year.
Iraq’s national security adviser, Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, led a delegation of defence and interior ministry officials to the camp last weekend, warning its 2,500 male and 1,000 female inmates that "staying in Iraq is not an option". The Iraqi government said it "is keen to execute its plans to close the camp and send its inhabitants to their country or other countries in a non-forcible manner".
US troops disarmed the opposition group known as the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) after the 2003 invasion. They removed hundreds of armoured vehicles donated by Saddam Hussein but kept the camp intact because some Bush administration officials allegedly saw the MEK as a potential tool for regime change in Iran.
The Shia-led government in Baghdad has forged close relations with fellow Shias in Tehran and rejects such ambitions. It insisted that the US/Iraq security agreement contain a promise that Iraq would not be used for attacks on Iran or any other country.
Under the security deal Iraq yesterday took over the Green Zone and Saddam’s former presidential palace. The prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, declared a national holiday, saying it amounted to the moment when sovereignty was restored.
The MEK helped to bring the Shah’s overthrow but soon clashed with Ayatollah Khomeini and his drive to put clerics in charge of the country.
It now describes itself as "democratic and secular". Insisting the camp’s inmates have conducted no armed operations in Iran since 2001, Nasser Razii, a London spokesman for the group’s political arm, said: "Camp Ashraf provides hope to the Iranian nation and keeps the flame of resistance burning. We want to keep it on the doorstep of our homeland."
The US and EU placed the MEK on their lists of terrorist organisations after 9/11. Last year Europe’s court of first instance ruled it should be removed from the EU list on the grounds it had not carried out terrorist activities for years. Lord Corbett, a Labour peer who has long supported the movement, and other British parliamentarians last month signed a letter to the Iraqi government urging it not to close Camp Ashraf. MPs in other European countries have made similar appeals.
Former members claim the MEK is a cult that forces members to break ties with their families, orders married couples to separate and demands they devote themselves totally to the movement. Closing the camp will restore members’ human rights and allow them to decide whether to resume normal life, they say. But MEK members fear they will be deported to Iran, a fear Baghdad says is groundless.
Independent visitors to Camp Ashraf report that the inmates live in segregated barracks-style rooms. The International Committee for the Red Cross says several hundred former MEK members have left Camp Ashraf since 2003. The ICRC has helped more than 250 cross the border to Iran after conducting private interviews with each to ensure they are going voluntarily.
In spite of MEK claims that returnees face arrest and imprisonment or have been offered unfair inducements by the Iranian authorities, the ICRC is continuing the repatriation programme. "If we had any allegations of ill-treatment of people who have returned to Iran we would follow up with the authorities in Tehran," said Dorothea Krimitsas, ICRC spokesperson for the Middle East.