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

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 16, 2009; A08

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.

Shortly after the U.S.-led invasion, the American military brokered the group's disarmament and offered it protection. The MEK says it gave U.S. officials valuable information about Iran's nuclear program.

The roughly 3,200 residents of the camp have since lived in a Marxist-like commune, and they say they aspire to overthrow the Iranian regime.

A group with few friends

In recent months, as the Iraqi government has become increasingly assertive, the residents' fate has become precarious. In July, Iraqi troops barged into the camp to set up a police station. Group members resisted, and Iraqi officers opened fire and ran over residents with American-donated armored Humvees, killing 11 people and wounding scores.

While it seeks a permanent home for the Iranians, the Iraqi government says it intends to take them to other camps in southern Iraq. But officials have not disclosed details.

As others debate the MEK's fate, the group appears more isolated than ever. It recently broke off communications with the International Committee of the Red Cross. The European Commission has begun distributing a white paper to lawmakers, many of whom support the MEK, in an effort to taper their support for the group.

"We're trying to educate them," said a senior Western diplomat involved in the efforts, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic rules. "We collectively tend to forget what bad guys the MEK are."

American officials say they can do little under the terms of a bilateral agreement other than urge the Iraqis to act humanely.

"We not only have no obligation to protect them, we cannot intervene," said Philip Frayne, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy.

MEK members say the United States owes them more.

"I am afraid of these soldiers," said Maryam Zoljalali, 28, who moved to the camp eight years ago from Sweden. "I don't know what they will do in the future."

After standing by uncomfortably for a few minutes as camp residents waved placards and photos around journalists, Iraqi troops ordered the reporters back to their vehicles.

Inside one bus, an Iraqi soldier scoffed as he looked out the window.

"They had satellite dishes before anyone in Iraq," he said, a reference to the preferential treatment accorded to the MEK under Hussein. "We used to come here as laborers when they were the commanders."

Asked whether the turned tables were an opportunity for revenge, another soldier laughed.

"I have nothing to do with this," he said. "But their state wants them back."

Special correspondent Aziz Alwan contributed to this report.

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