CAMP ASHRAF, Iraq — Texas-born Elham Kiamanesh seems thoroughly American, but in the last decade she's spent working to overthrow the Iranian regime, this military camp with its tree-lined avenues and flower-filled parks north of Baghdad is the only home she's known.
"You can call me Ellie, that's my nickname," says Ms. Kiamanesh as she explains why she gave up normal life and her love of children to try to topple the government of a country she's never visited.
Kiamanesh is one of some 3,400 residents, including several hundred Westerners, in the middle of one of the strangest episodes in the dramatic shift in relations between Iran, Iraq, and the United States.
In the 1980s, in the midst of Iraq's bitter eight-year-war with Iran, Saddam Hussein invited the Iranian opposition to set up military operations here. When Saddam's regime was toppled, US forces disarmed the group. In January, Camp Ashraf reverted to control by the Iraqi government, which plans to close the base as a sign of goodwill toward Iran.
Its residents – members of the People's Mujahadeen organization (Mujahadeen e-Khalq, known by the Farsi acronyms MEK or MKO) – are either to return to Iran or to the third countries where they have citizenship. But to the Iraqi government's consternation, they are not going willingly.
Militarily irrelevant, but still symbolic
Disarmed, Camp Ashraf has become militarily irrelevant. But as an embarrassment to both the Iranian and Iraqi governments, it still has considerable symbolic value.
In the first media visit granted by Iraqi authorities since they took control of the camp this year, residents told The Christian Science Monitor they would not voluntarily leave.
"I've decided to stay here until there's a free Iran," says Hassan Mohammad. Mr. Mohammad lived in the camp with his mother until the age of eight and then was sent to Canada where the family had refugee status during the 1991 war over Kuwait. He returned here at the age of 17 and spent the next several years with a MEK tank unit in the south of Iraq.
Now, he spends his time here in computer classes and the evenings occasionally watching movies on the Iranian opposition's television channel. "The last one was "Slum Dog Millionaire,' " he says.
The sprawling camp, one of the biggest military bases in Iraq, has its own university classrooms and hospital. Men and women live in separate dormitories and for the most part study or work in segregated classes. The MEK's philosophy is a mix of Marxism and Islam teaching with a dose of feminism and a very large element of control.
Marriage here is forbidden. There have been no children for years.
Iraq: 'The party is over'
Mr. Madani and other MEK officials invite guests into a cool, white reception room and serve tea and cake while producing a wide variety of documents and letters that do little to alleviate the ambiguity over the camp's legal status.
Madani dismisses the issue of Iraqi law, which authorities say makes the MEK residents illegal foreigners in the country. Instead he cites the Geneva Conventions, under which the US military had recognized the MEK as noncombatants in the war and pledged to protect them.
"This is purely an agenda forced by the Iranian regime. Why do we have to give in to such a thing?" he says of the Iraqi government's plan to shut down the camp and move residents to a more remote location in Iraq as a prelude to leaving the country.
"They have to understand that the party is over for them," Mr. Rubaie told journalists recently, after refuting allegations from the MEK that their members were being mistreated. "They need to understand that they have to leave. This is not [the era of] Saddam Hussein using them against Iran. We will never use them against Iran."
Describing the residents as "brainwashed cult members from a high-trained terrorist organization," Rubaie says Iraq does not intend to forcibly deport them but "if they resist and carry out this engineered crisis there will be some pain."
The Iraqi government is pressuring other countries to take back about one-third of the camp residents with either foreign passports or travel documents. The rest will be given the Iranian passports they are entitled to and a plane ticket home.
Plenty of places to go, but this is home
The residents include Americans, Canadians, Swedes, and Dutch. Rubaei says another 309 could legally return to France, where the MEK is based. While the US lists the group as a terrorist organization, the European Union has dropped that designation. As individuals, MEK members are also free to return to the US unless there are specific arrest warrants for them.
After 2003, the US military seized the MEK's tanks and other weapons and confined its residents to the isolated base. All of the camp residents renounced violence and underwent background screening by US authorities.
MEK members argue that their cooperation entitles them to stay.
"We used our own money to build this, to plant every single tree and plant in this place," Madani says bitterly, driving past parks and streets punctuated with giant sculptures of tulips and birds. "This is their home. There are cemeteries, people who have died here, they are buried here, they have lived here.'
Outside the museum dedicated to Iranian atrocities, Kiamanesh sits with her friend, Gohar Mohajeri, on a walkway planted with flowers. Ms. Mohajeri was born in New York but grew up in Germany. She has never been to Iran.
"For outsiders, when they don't know what our goal and aim is, obviously our life is abnormal for them," says Mohajeri. Kiamanesh translates for her from Farsi.
Neither seem to realize how isolated they are at the camp. "I do believe this is the greenest place in all of Iraq," says Kiamanesh, a former law student who without a headscarf would look like the girl next door. "Why would anyone ever want to leave this place?"