Tension deepens over intent to close Iraq's Camp Ashraf
The camp is the last place belonging to the MEK Iranian opposition group, and concerns are growing over potential violence if Iraq moves forcefully to shut it down.
Baghdad - Fifty miles from the Iranian border, a potentially deadly drama is quietly unfolding as the Iraqi government grapples with the fate of several thousand Iranian opposition members who refuse to fade into history.Skip to next paragraph
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The opposition Mujahideen al-Khalq (MEK) has been closely watching the protests next door in Iran over charges of a rigged reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But their interest isn't in whether the Iranian leader gives in to calls for a recount. It's their belief that the protests could somehow topple the entire system of Iran's religious leadership.
"We are witnessing the beginning of the end of the oppressive clerical regime," the Paris-based organization quoted one of its supporters as saying.
The prospect of a change in Iran's government is viewed by many to be as unlikely as the MEK's hope that Iraq will change its mind about shutting down a camp that has been a major irritant in Iranian-Iraqi relations.
In recent weeks, the leadership of Camp Ashraf, the former main military base of the MEK, has accused Iraqi riot police of entering the camp north of Baghdad and threatening some of its 3,400 residents.
Western officials familiar with the case say Interior Ministry rapid deployment forces stopped outside the main gate in what appeared to be a show of force, without going into the camp.
They say, though, that the standoff could very easily turn violent, given the combination of Iraqi troops not known for their restraint and an extremely disciplined organization intent on creating an international incident.
In 2003, several MEK protesters in Paris set fire to themselves to protest the arrest of the organization's leader.
The stakes are so high, say Western officials, because Camp Ashraf, which before the war had its own tanks and mortars, has been central to the wider organization.
"Camp Ashraf is the last place they have," says one Western official. "You have to ask – what is the MEK without it?"
Funded and armed under Saddam Hussein
The sprawling camp, with its manicured gardens and tree-lined streets, is a holdover from Iraq's bitter conflict with neighboring Iran, including eight years of war. Under Saddam Hussein, the MEK was funded and armed – launching extensive attacks on Iran from Iraqi soil.
With the fall of the Iraqiregime in 2003, the MEK was disarmed by US forces. The Iraqi government, which along with the United States considers the MEK a terrorist organization, says its members have no legal right to be here and has asked them to voluntary return to Iran or to third countries that might take them.
"Without legal status here, they don't exist," says one Western official. "It is an impossible situation."
In a measure of the persistence of the MEK's lobbying efforts targeting government officials, as well as the sensitivity of the issue, all of the officials who spoke about the subject asked to remain anonymous. The Iraqi committee in charge of the issue declined all requests for comment.
The MEK itself, which routinely issues statements accusing Iraqi authorities of trying to kill its members, did not respond to specific questions about plans to relocate the residents.
About 100 of the camp's 3,400 residents are believed to have dual nationality. Another 1,000 have been residents of other countries. Despite the MEK's listing as a terror group by the US and Iraq, the residents of Camp Ashraf are not individually considered terrorists.
Relocation offers are hard to come by