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Iran pushes Iraq to close MKO camp

Camp Ashraf, which came under Iraqi control Jan. 1, is home to militants who Iran and Iraq say should be expelled. The MKO is on a US list of terrorist groups.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 2, 2009

Back in Iran: Ebrahim Kohodabandeh, a former member of the Iranian opposition group MKO, was forcibly repatriated from Iraq. He now says the MKO manipulated him.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images

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TEHRAN, Iran; and ISTANBUL, Turkey

Pressure is growing on Iran's main opposition group to leave Iraqi territory after living under US military protection in a camp north of Baghdad since 2003.

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Some 3,400 militants of the Mujahideen-e Khalq (known by the acronyms MKO or MEK) face eviction by the government of Iraq, which has tired of a group that once fielded its own army under the tutelage of Saddam Hussein and remains on Washington's list of terrorist groups.

On Saturday, Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, encouraged Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to follow through with Baghdad's longstanding desire to disband Camp Ashraf, which came under Iraqi control on Jan. 1.

"We await the implementation of our agreement regarding the expulsion of the hypocrites," Ayatollah Khamenei told Iraq's visiting president, referring to the MKO by the term often used by the Islamic Republic.

Mr. Talabani was quoted as saying that the MKO "have committed many crimes against the Iraqis, and the Iraqi government is determined to expel them and will go forward with its decision."

His words echo those of Iraq's national security adviser, Muwafaq al-Rubaie. "The only choices open to members of this group are to return to Iran or to choose another country," Mr. Rubaie said in Tehran last January.

"Over 3,000 inhabitants of Camp Ashraf have to leave Iraq, and the camp will be part of history within two months," said Rubaie, adding that more than 900 are dual nationals and that he would be holding talks with officials of 12 countries.

Those options are limited for the controversial cultlike group, whose armed wing came under Pentagon control after the fall of Mr. Hussein.

Despised in Iran for bomb attacks and the killing of government officials and civilians in the first years after the 1979 Islamic revolution – and later for fighting alongside Iraqi troops against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s –the MKO was disarmed in 2003 but kept intact as a possible tool for use by the US against Tehran.

Terrorist list status

In January, the group toasted its removal from the European Union terrorist list. But it was delisted for legal reasons – using its removal from the British terrorism list in 2008 as part of its case. The decision has been appealed by France, and the group remains on the terror lists of some individual member states.

The delisting, though, may enable some militants to be accepted in Europe. Many fear returning to Iran, though more than 300 "quitters" – as the MKO calls those who leave the organization – have gone home with little incident. "This is the end of the terrorist label," says Alireza Jafarzadeh, the group's spokesman in Washington until 2003, when the MKO, with its several arms and variety of names, was closed down in the US. Removal from the EU list is a "major victory for the MEK and the resistance movement overall," he says.

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