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Tensions in Iranian Exile Camp Ashraf in Iraq

CAMP ASHRAF, Iraq — There seems, as with many problems in Iraq, no good answer for Camp Ashraf, as tensions here rise and American soldiers get closer to leaving: what to do with the few thousand Iranian dissidents here trained in explosives and proficient with tanks and machine guns who have sworn to overthrow the government in Tehran?

(Giti Zardestian, with a portrait of her son, and Reza Nawrozi, right, both from Iran, said that they had been waiting nine days to see relatives at Camp Ashraf)

The group that lives here, the People’s Mujahedeen, has had a long and winding history. It killed Americans, supported the takeover of the United States Embassy in Iran during the 1970s and was given sanctuary in Iraq by Saddam Hussein. But after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the group was protected by the United States after supplying information about Iran’s nuclear program. Still, the United States regards it as a terrorist organization.

The Iraqi government, allied with the group’s enemy, Iran, is now losing patience: In July, the Iraqi Army launched a raid on the camp with the purpose of establishing a police station there. Police officers and soldiers opened fire and ran over people with military vehicles, killing 11 and wounding more than 500. The government wants to throw the group out of Iraq.

“That’s our goal, to get them out of the country,” Ali al-Alak, an adviser to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, said in a recent interview. “We have enough to worry about.”

A standoff has been in place since the deaths in July, though both Iraqis and members of Camp Ashraf worry about a new round of violence if a solution is not found soon.

Among other complaints, members of the camp say that the Iraqi Army intermittently blocks fuel and food from reaching them and prevents them from coming and going.
Iraq has prohibited news organizations and most humanitarian groups from entering Camp Ashraf since the July raid, but the government allowed a reporter and photographer inside the camp last week to interview its members and their relatives.

During the visit, the tension between the group and Iraqi security forces was conspicuous. The Iraqi police and army units said they generally stayed in a police station set up after the raid and had little contact with the camp for fear of being attacked.

Large sections of the 14-square-mile camp were patrolled by unarmed camp members. United States soldiers were also seen at the camp.

While Ashraf’s residents said that Iraqi forces had been doing the bidding of Iran, Iraqi Army officers described the members of the People’s Mujahedeen as being in a cultlike thrall to their leaders, too frightened to leave or to speak to Iraqi police officers and soldiers.

“It is not a civil society,” said Col. Saadi Habib al-Duleimi, who oversees the camp. “It is a complex political-military system. Personal opinion is not important. Decisions are not up to the individual. If a leader at the camp tells you to die, you will die.”

The camp resembles a small military town — only neater. It has an artificial lake, sports fields, a shopping mall, a hospital and rows of poplars. Some structures, including a mosque, are replicas of buildings in Iran.

In one of Ashraf’s parks there is a set of large swings but not a child in sight. Camp leaders say the children were moved out years ago because of the military nature of the group, which in the past has launched attacks into Iran, has assassinated Iranian officials and has come under fire from Iranian rockets.

Since the raid, the camp has been in limbo.

The United Nations and Iraq have been seeking countries willing to accept Ashraf’s residents, but they have had a difficult time persuading governments. Most residents say being returned to Iran, where most of them have citizenship, is out of the question because they would be executed.

But residents also say that life at the camp since the raid has become intolerable.

“The situation has deteriorated; people are in a constant worry,” said Hossein Moradi, 46, an electrical engineer who has lived in the camp for 22 years. “We need a guarantee that Ashraf will not be attacked again.”

In a recent statement, the United Nations said that “efforts are now needed on all sides to reduce tension and look for solutions,” calling on “the international community to provide all possible assistance in this regard, including resettlement to third countries.”

During the visit to Ashraf, a group of families had been waiting for days outside the camp’s gates to see relatives. The Iraqi Army would not allow them, and the residents refused to go to the camp’s entrance.

The accounts of the family and of the camp members were remarkable in their dissimilarity: While the relatives said their loved ones had been kidnapped or tricked into joining, Ashraf residents said they were there willingly.

Nisreen Lufti Zada, 60, said she had been waiting at the camp for nine days to visit her daughter, Susan Banihashimi, 45. “She had nothing to do with politics or activities against the Iranian government,” Mrs. Zada said. “I have no idea why she came here.”

During a visit five years ago, she said, her daughter “had been afraid of everything — even the walls around her.”

But on this day, Ms. Banihashimi was a picture of poise. Some of her responses, as well as those of other Ashraf residents, sounded mechanical. “I voluntarily left Iran,” Ms. Banihashimi said. “I was on the verge of being executed because of my activities.”

Asked why she had refused to see her mother, Ms. Banihashimi said her mother had been compelled by the Iranian intelligence service to come so it would appear that Ms. Banihashimi was being held against her will.

“It is better I don’t see her, although I would love to see her, because then the Iranian regime would then put even more pressure on her,” she said.

Mrs. Zada had said that her daughter had been gang raped by Ashraf leaders and that similar acts happened to other women there. But Ms. Banihashimi said no such thing had happened.

“Their allegations are not new,” she said. “It is one of the dirty plots of the Iranian regime to try to break the will of women.”

Two days later, mother and daughter met, but Ms. Banihashimi said the reunion had been tense.

“Once she realized I wasn’t ready to come back, she insulted me and slapped me in the face,” she said. They did not decide on whether to meet again.

Reporting was contributed by Riyadh Mohammed and Mohammed Hussein from Baghdad, and Sa’ad Izzi and an Iraqi employee of The New York Times from Diyala Province.


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