Iranian exiles leave disputed Camp Ashraf in Iraq
KHALIS, Iraq (AP) — The remaining 42 residents of an Iranian dissident camp that was the scene of a disputed outbreak of violence last week left the compound Wednesday to join their comrades at another camp near Baghdad airport, according to Iraqi officials and representatives for the exiles.
The transfer marks the end of a years-long effort by Iraqi authorities to evict members of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq dissident group from Camp Ashraf, an isolated Saddam Hussein-era compound that the group was extremely reluctant to leave.
The MEK is staunchly opposed to Iran’s clerical regime, and thousands of its members were granted sanctuary inside Iraq by Saddam. It carried out a series of bombings and assassinations inside Iran in the 1980s and fought alongside Iraqi forces in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
Its fortunes inside Iraq turned sharply with Saddam’s ouster following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Iraq’s current Shiite-led government, which has been bolstering ties with neighboring Shiite powerhouse Iran, considers the group’s presence inside Iraq illegal and wants its followers out of the country.
Most of the residents of Camp Ashraf, where members of the group had lived for decades, reluctantly moved to a former U.S. military base near Baghdad airport last year. A core of about 100 MEK followers had stayed behind to protect and sell off the group’s remaining property.
A shooting on Sept. 1 left 52 of those residents dead. Another seven people are missing, according to the MEK. The group blames Iraqi security forces loyal to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for the killings. Iraqi officials deny involvement and say an internal dispute is to blame.
United Nations officials visited the camp shortly after the shooting and condemned the bloodshed, but they have not reported any findings as to who was responsible.
Maj. Gen. Jamil al-Shimmari, the police chief of Diyala province, where the camp is located, and the mayor of the nearby town of Khalis, Oday al-Khadran, told The Associated Press that a convoy carrying the residents and their belongings left the camp Wednesday evening.
“This took a lot of patience. We dealt with them according to the law,” al-Shimmari said. None of the Iraqi officials reported any incidents of violence during the transfer.
The residents were searched by Iraqi forces before departing and were allowed to visit the graves of loved ones who are buried at a cemetery inside the compound, al-Shimmari said. The residents initially refused to leave, but were eventually persuaded after representatives from the U.N. intervened, he added.
Authorities have prevented journalists from getting near the camp since the shooting this month.
A spokeswoman for the U.N. in Iraq, Eliana Nabaa, earlier in the day described the transfer process as “ongoing.” She could not be reached for further comment after Iraqi officials confirmed the transfer had begun.
Representatives for the for MEK’s parent organization, the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran, later confirmed the departure.
Mohammed Mohaddessin, chairman of the NCRI’s foreign affairs committee, said in an interview that the council’s president-elect, Maryam Rajavi, urged the remaining residents to leave over the past few days.
“The ultimate reason ... was the safety and security of the residents,” he said.
Mohaddessin said an explosion went off near one of the buses as it passed near the town of Khalis, not far from the camp, but there were no injuries reported. He said residents were forced to leave behind much of their property, including cars and buildings they’ve constructed since moving in in 1986.
“This is the life of thousands of Iranians. The Iraqi government decided to steal this property,” he charged, adding that residents will pursue efforts to reclaim the goods.
The residents are expected to join more than 2,800 former Camp Ashraf residents who are now living at a former American military base known as Camp Liberty, on the outskirts of Baghdad. It is meant to be a transit facility while the U.N. works to resettle the exiles abroad.
MEK supporters have complained about services and security at the new Baghdad compound, which has been repeatedly targeted by militants in deadly rocket attacks. The dissidents do not want to return to Iran because they fear persecution there.
The MEK says it renounced violence in 2001, and Camp Ashraf residents were disarmed by U.S. troops after the invasion. The U.S. considered the MEK a terrorist group until last year. Leaving Camp Ashraf was a key factor in reversing that designation.
The process to resettle the exiles abroad has been slow because the U.N. has had difficulty securing commitments from host countries and because some of them are reluctant to be separated from their comrades.
A total of 198 former residents of the two camps have been resettled abroad so far, most to Albania.
Schreck reported from Baghdad.
Follow Adam Schreck on Twitter at www.twitter.com/adamschreck