Iraq orders Iranian exiles to vacate camp, raising fears of bloodshed

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 16, 2009

CAMP ASHRAF, IRAQ -- With loudspeakers mounted on pickup trucks and riot police offering backup, Iraqi troops on Tuesday ordered a group of Iranian dissidents here to vacate their sanctuary, which has become an irritant in Iraq's relationship with Iran.

"Today is the day we start moving things out," Brig. Gen. Basel Hamad told reporters during a rare trip to the camp, 40 miles north of Baghdad. "We will not allow any foreigners to establish their own laws on Iraqi soil."

Members of the Mujaheddin-e Khalq, or MEK, who reside in the 10-square-mile compound, have warned that they will not be taken out alive. Residents and Western officials fear the increasingly tense stalemate at Camp Ashraf could end in bloodshed.

The standoff has raised questions about the extent to which the United States, which once protected the MEK, is indebted to armed groups with which it brokered deals during the course of the war. The deadlock also has shed light on the degree to which an increasingly sovereign Iraq is haunted by its past, swayed by erstwhile nemesis Iran and willing to use force.

The Iraqi government invited reporters to the camp Tuesday. The day began ominously, with three car bombs detonating at the site where the journalists later gathered. At least four people were killed in the blasts, which occurred near the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad.

At midday, Iraqi policemen donned riot gear at a staging area and spoke about what might happen at Camp Ashraf in the days ahead.

"Our instructions are that we are not to beat anyone," said Aquil Ahmed, the police commissioner, adding that troops were armed only with rubber batons and electric shock wands. "If the demonstrations reach another stage, we will need to use weapons."

Packing dozens of Iraqi and Western journalists into the backs of pickup trucks, Iraqi troops drove down the tree-lined streets of the camp dropping leaflets and blaring messages in Farsi on loudspeakers. They asked MEK members to defect and invited them to hop into four small white-and-blue buses. None obliged.

A point of contention

The MEK camp includes dozens of people with dual nationalities or with residency permits for the United States, Canada and European countries.

Their continued presence in Iraq has been a sore spot in Baghdad's relations with Tehran, which became close after the March 2003 U.S. invasion. The Shiite-led government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says the group must be disbanded and expelled, but no country seems willing to give the MEK sanctuary.

The group began as a student opposition movement in Tehran in the 1960s that sought to overthrow Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the shah. It resorted to violence during the 1970s, with members accused of bombing government facilities and killing U.S. citizens in Iran.

The MEK moved its headquarters to Iraq in the mid-1980s and fought alongside Saddam Hussein's forces during the second half of the war between the neighboring countries. U.S. and European officials say the group helped the Iraqi government crush uprisings by Shiites and Kurds.

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