BAGHDAD (AP) — The Iraqi government is stepping up efforts to pressure Iranian exiles into leaving the country, pushing an obscure group to the forefront of Baghdad’s relations with Washington and the Obama administration’s overtures to Iran.
At stake is whether Iraq can resolve the fate of 3,500 members of the People’s Mujahedeen Organization of Iran without damaging its ties to both the U.S. and Iran.
In recent weeks, leaders of the People’s Mujahedeen, known by its Farsi initials MEK, claim the Iraqis blockaded their Camp Ashraf north of Baghdad, allowing in only limited food and water shipments.
And earlier this month, they say, the Iraqi guards prevented Iraqi surgeons from entering the camp to treat critically ill patients — although the Iraqis ultimately relented.
To outsiders, the MEK may seem a strange cult-like group that bans sex and family life. But both the U.S. and Iran consider it a terrorist organization.
The Iraqi government makes no secret it wants the MEK out of the country in order to improve relations with Iran.
“Remaining in Iraq is not an option,” said national security adviser Mouwaffak al-Rubaie. “They have existed in Iraq solely to overthrow the government of a neighbor, Iran. That past permissiveness is over.”
Iran has pressed for years to close the camp, but the issue came to a head after Iraqi forces took over security for Camp Ashraf on Jan. 1, under the Iraq-U.S. security pact. The government gave the Americans assurances they would not force the exiles back to Iran, where some face prosecution.
U.S. officials in Baghdad have declined to comment publicly on the MEK issue.
But the U.S. has a stake in the issue because the U.S. military signed an agreement with the militia after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, promising members would be treated as “protected persons” under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Al-Rubaie says that with Iraqis in control, the MEK is no longer protected by national laws or international conventions and must leave.
He dismisses claims of maltreatment and says Camp Ashraf residents are extremists who have been “brainwashed” by about 15-20 of their most militant leaders. The U.S. has tried to defuse the tensions but without much success.
The MEK has a long history in Iraq.
Founded by Iranian leftists, it opposed Iran’s U.S.-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and took part in the 1979 Iranian revolution that brought the Islamic regime to power. Members were implicated in killings of Americans and the U.S. Embassy takeover in Tehran — reasons that put them on the U.S. terror list.
But their blend of Marxism and secular Islamism pitted them against the Ayatollahs and they eventually settled in Iraq, where they fought alongside Saddam Hussein’s forces during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
During Saddam’s time, MEK members staged military parades at Camp Ashraf, marching in uniforms and flaunting an impressive arsenal, and carried out deadly raids into Iran to attack their sworn enemy — Tehran’s regime.
They transformed Camp Ashraf from a barren desert stretch in the heart of the volatile Diyala province and only 50 miles from the Iranian border into an oasis of well-kept gardens, sprouting water fountains and palm trees along marked-out streets.
The fenced-off 30-square-mile compound houses 3,418 residents, including 900 women. Men and women obey a strict regimen, sleep in segregated, barrack-style quarters, and are said almost to deify their Paris-based leader, Maryam Rajavi. The camp has mostly been off limits and the government rarely allows media visits.
Al-Rubaie says hundreds of the residents hold documents linking them to a third country. There are five U.S. citizens, 11 Canadians and some European and Australian dual nationals.
Baghdad has tried to get those countries to accept them, and promises MEK members Iranian passports, a one-way ticket to a third country and $1,000 in pocket money, al-Rubaie said.
But Camp Ashraf residents refuse to go.
“It’s like somebody comes and tells you to leave the only home you’ve known for the past 20 years,” said Mohammad Mohaddessin, a senior official at MEK’s political wing in Paris.
The camp, he says, is a modern “city,” with a museum, a cemetery, and a bakery— even an “Ashraf Cola” factory. As for sex and family life, Ashraf residents “left this behind them voluntarily,” Mohaddessin said.
MEK is now turning to supporters in Europe, where the European Parliament in January removed the organization from its terror list after a British court backed the group’s claim to have renounced violence.
If all else fails, the MEK says it may take the Camp Ashraf case to an international tribunal at The Hague.
The Iraqi government says 261 residents were returned to Iran over the last two years and reported no persecution. Spokeswoman Dibeh Fakhr of Iraq’s office of the International Red Cross — which visited the camp four times last year — says the last returnee went back to Iran in April 2008.
Although the MEK is no longer a military threat, “symbolically, it’s very important for Iran that they are expelled,” said Iranian analyst Saeed Leilaz. Washington’s acquiescence would be an overture to Tehran and a “good start” for Iran and the U.S., he said.
For now, Iraq’s stranglehold of Camp Ashraf has created a shortage of some commodities, including toothpaste, chlorine for water purification and generator fuel, said camp physician Hamid Gazaeri.
The camp’s modest clinic is serviced by a few general practitioners, all Iranians living in Ashraf, and depends on regular visits by Iraqi specialists.
Cancer sufferer Fatemeh Alizadeh, one of five patients who waited for a week for surgery until Iraqi doctors were allowed back last Friday, can’t imagine the camp closing.
“It would be a catastrophe,” she said in a frail voice on the phone, speaking from her hospital bed. “I am not going anywhere.”
By KATARINA KRATOVAC