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.
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
But in line with comments by the previous head of Iraq's National Security Council describing MEK members here as "brainwashed" and potentially dangerous, persuading other countries to accept more than a few of them has been a very tough sell.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has given about 250 former camp residents refugee status, but so far only a handful of them have been accepted by any country for resettlement, officials say.
About 600 of the camp residents have left voluntarily since 2003. The Iraqi government has said it plans to move the remaining individuals to another region of Iraq, farther from the Iranian border, but has not yet told camp leaders where it intends to relocate them.
"The closer we get to that eventuality, the more tense it will become," says one official, saying whether or not violence broke out would depend on the instructions residents received from the MEK leadership.
In interviews at Camp Ashraf in April, camp residents, under very tight control by the organization and with their contact with family outside restricted, said they would never leave the camp, the only home many of them have known for more than a decade.
One former resident's legal limbo
Camp leaders provided reams of documents listing the residents under Geneva Conventions as protected persons during the fighting in 2003. But that does not address the current issue of the residents' lack of legal status in a country that is no longer at war with Iran or under attack by the US.
Some of those who have made the difficult decision to leave Camp Ashraf have found themselves in limbo.
In a hotel in Baghdad's Green Zone in May, an MEK member who had left was waiting for travel documents to be reunited with her daughter whom she had given up 17 years ago at the age of 2.
The woman, who said she did not want to give her real name for fear of Iranian retribution, asked us to call her Zahra. She had been at MEK camps in Iraq for 21 years and had sent her Baghdad-born daughter to be raised by other MEK members abroad after the organization decided to break up families, believing that such attachments hampered their members' commitment to the cause.
"It is difficult for other people to understand. All of us in the camp are political people" dedicated to the overthrow of the Iranian regime, she said.
Zahra was given refugee status in Sweden after being imprisoned in Shiraz as a teenage protester in the 1980s. She said she left Camp Ashraf because it had been difficult in the past year to get physical therapy or pain medication for an injury sustained during a military operation shortly after she arrived in Iraq.
"They [the camp leadership] said to me, 'You can go if you want to,' " she said.
Officials privately said that after Zahra began lobbying on behalf of the MEK with Iraqi members of parliament opposed to the government's decision to close the camp, she was moved across town to a much smaller hotel where several other MEK members are being held while they await documents to leave the country.
In a phone call from her new hotel room, she said she was prevented from leaving the hotel and had gone on a hunger strike. The German Embassy said it was following her case, and other officials said her health did not appear to be in danger.
Iraqi government guards posted in the lobby of the hotel prevented access to her and would not allow the hotel phone to be used to call her room, saying she needed permission from more senior Iraqi officials to talk to anyone.
"It's part of the problem.... The Iraqi government has not decided how it wants to deal with individuals," says one Western official, noting that resettlement to a third country often took months or years. "They have to give them an incentive to want to leave the camp."