Iraq plans to close a camp for Iranian dissidents who used to cross into Iran to mount assassinations and sabotage — a decision that has sharpened political differences between Baghdad and Washington.
Camp Ashraf, about 130km north of Baghdad, came under Iraqi control on Thursday in a broad security handover that forms part of the US withdrawal agreement concluded late last year.
Iraq’s national security adviser, Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, led a delegation of defense and interior ministry officials to the camp last weekend, warning its 2,500 male and 1,000 female inmates that “staying in Iraq is not an option.”
The Iraqi government said it “is keen to execute its plans to close the camp and send its inhabitants to their country or other countries in a non-forcible manner.”
US troops disarmed the opposition group known as the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) after the 2003 invasion. They removed hundreds of armored vehicles donated by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, but kept the camp intact because some Bush administration officials allegedly saw the MEK as a potential tool for regime change in Iran.
The Shiite-led government in Baghdad has forged close relations with fellow Shiites in Tehran and rejects such ambitions. It insisted that the US-Iraq security agreement contain a promise that Iraq would not be used for attacks on Iran or any other country.
Under the security deal Iraq on Thursday took over the Green Zone and Saddam’s former presidential palace. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declared a national holiday, saying it amounted to the moment when sovereignty was restored.
The MEK helped to bring the Shah’s overthrow but soon clashed with Ayatollah Khomeini and his drive to put clerics in charge of the country. Like almost every other political party and group that had created the revolution, it lost hundreds of members to torture and execution in the early 1980s.
It now describes itself as “democratic and secular.” Insisting the camp’s inmates have conducted no armed operations in Iran since 2001, Nasser Razii, a London spokesman for the group’s political arm, said: “Camp Ashraf provides hope to the Iranian nation and keeps the flame of resistance burning. We want to keep it on the doorstep of our homeland.”
The US and EU placed the MEK on their lists of terrorist organizations after Sept. 11. Last year Europe’s court of first instance ruled it should be removed from the EU list on the grounds it has not carried out terrorist activities for years.
Former members say the MEK is a cult that forces members to break ties with their families, orders married couples to separate and demands they devote themselves totally to the movement. Closing the camp will restore members’ human rights and allow them to decide whether to resume normal life, they say. But MEK members fear they will be deported to Iran, a fear Baghdad says is groundless.