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Iraq Threatens to Expel Iranian Rebels
Exile Group Has Protected Status Under Soon-to-Expire U.N. Mandate

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 22, 2008

BAGHDAD, Dec. 21 -- Iraqi officials say they intend to expel members of an Iranian exile group living in a camp north of Baghdad that is protected by the U.S. military. The expulsion, which the Shiite-led government has long sought, is expected to become feasible once the U.N. mandate that regulates the presence of U.S. troops -- and which gave the Iranian opposition group protected status -- expires at the end of the year.

Iraqi national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie on Saturday traveled to the camp with several other government officials to deliver the message to members of the Mujaheddin-e Khalq, or MEK, an Iranian opposition group that was closely aligned with deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein but has been under U.S. military protection since shortly after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

The government informed the group that it would soon assume responsibility for security at Camp Ashraf and that residents would be repatriated unless they find a third country willing to take them. The U.S. military currently protects Camp Ashraf, which is 40 miles north of Baghdad.

"Staying in Iraq is not an option for them," the government said in a statement issued Sunday. The Iranian government has long called for the group's expulsion.

The statement did not set a deadline for removing the MEK. Iraqi officials have pledged to treat the group's members humanely but have made their disdain for the MEK clear. The delegation that visited the camp included officials of the Defense and Interior ministries as well as Iraqi intelligence officials.

The statement also said the group is barred from participating in political activities and ordered it to cease media campaigns.

The Shiite-led Iraqi government, which has close ties to Iran, has for years threatened to shut down Camp Ashraf because it regards the MEK, also known as the People's Mujaheddin Organization of Iran, as a terrorist organization.

The European Union and the U.S. State Department have also labeled the group a terrorist organization.

The MEK, which has about 3,500 members in Iraq, has strongly resisted the Iraqi government's expulsion efforts, saying members could be executed if they are forced to return to Iran. The group has aggressively lobbied U.S. and European lawmakers and has relentlessly sought sympathetic coverage in the Western news media.

The MEK was founded in the 1960s as an opponent of the late shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. It was accused of carrying out several attacks in Iran, including some targeting U.S. officials.

The MEK moved its headquarters to Iraq during the 1980s, when Iraq and Iran were at war. Former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein embraced the group, providing them weapons and financial support.

Kurds and Shiites have long reviled the MEK because they say the group helped suppress the failed Kurdish and Shiite uprisings that followed the Persian Gulf War.

Shortly after the 2003 invasion, the U.S. military persuaded the MEK to disarm and offered to protect the group. The arrangement was awkward because it tasked the U.S. military with sheltering a group that remains on the State Department's terrorism list.

The group's charismatic leader, Maryam Rajavi, is based in Paris, but France and many other countries have been reluctant to resettle the group's members.

Also Sunday, Iraq's Interior Ministry issued a statement calling the recent detention of ministry officials by a special unit that reports directly to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki "a brazen act of political retribution."

Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani had dismissed reports that the roughly two dozen detained officials were plotting to reconstitute Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, possibly to stage a coup. The statement makes clear Bolani was deeply unsettled by the detentions. Bolani, an independent, secular Shiite, has not previously criticized the Maliki government in such stark terms. With provincial elections a few weeks away, competition among Shiite parties has intensified. Bolani recently created his own party, and the statement appears to indicate he believes that the prime minister ordered the raid to undermine him.

Under Bolani's stewardship, the ministry has fired or criminally charged tens of thousands of employees accused of corruption. The raid occurred last week while Bolani was out of the country. He said any concerns about misdeeds by ministry officials should be brought to his attention and not handled "Saddam-like under cover of the night under dubious threats of an imminent coup."

"The Minister was outraged that anyone would interfere in the administration of the Ministry he is sworn to lead," the statement said. "He alone is responsible for this Ministry and he is accountable only to the Iraqi people."

The statement, signed by Rafae Munahe, an adviser to Bolani, was e-mailed to reporters late Sunday by a representative of Brown Lloyd James, a public relations firm.

Special correspondent Qais Mizher contributed to this report.

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