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Invited by Saddam: Iranian opposition members refuse to leave Iraq outpost

Disarmed by US forces in 2003, the 3,400 People’s Mujahideen members at Camp Ashraf have been asked to leave by the Iraqi government.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 8, 2009

Elham Kiamanesh (l.), a former law student who was born in Texas, has spent the last decade working to overthrow the Iranian regime. Her friend Gohar Mohajeri (r.) was born in New York and grew up in Germany.

Jane Arraf

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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.

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"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 (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.

"We have left family life behind," says Hossein Madani, an urbane former aereospace instructor in Virginia and a senior official at Camp Ashraf.

Iraq: 'The party is over'