Dissident Iranians Live In Limbo In Iraq

3 11 2009

November 2, 2009

An old Middle East aphorism says “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” With the United States and Iran at odds, it should mean warm relations between the United States and the opponents of Tehran.

But a group of 3,400 Iranian dissidents, currently living north of Baghdad, has posed a dilemma for the U.S. government.

They were given U.S. military protection in 2003 after the American-led invasion of Iraq, but now the Iraqi government wants them out. The trouble is that they don’t want to leave.

The Mujahedeen-e Khalq organization, known as MEK, was part of the alliance that overthrew the Shah of Iran in 1979. But it quickly ran afoul of the Islamic revolution. The organization moved to Iraq in the 1980s. Since then, the dissidents have lived as refugees at Camp Ashraf, north of Baghdad.

Refuge in Iraq came at a price, though. Saddam Hussein put them to work against their own country during the Iran-Iraq war. And he had other jobs for them, as well.

Ali al-Zuhairi, an Iraqi tribal sheik in the town of Khalis, near Camp Ashraf, recalls bitterly how the MEK helped Saddam put down the Shiite and Kurdish uprisings in 1991. Zuhairi claims the MEK killed rebel Iraqis and left their bodies in the street. He calls them “terrorists.”

Officially, the U.S. government agrees, and designates the MEK as a foreign terrorist organization. But on the ground in Iraq, the U.S. treats the group differently, says Mohammad al-Shemari, another resident of Khalis.

“When they got rid of Saddam, we thought the Americans would also remove the Mujahedeen,” Shemari says. But instead, he adds, the Americans are using the group against Iran.

U.S. Forces Leave, Trouble Follows

For six years, U.S. forces protected Camp Ashraf and debriefed the MEK for intelligence about Iran. But on June 30, American forces ceded security control to the Iraqi government. One of the first things the Iraqi government did was force its way into Camp Ashraf to put a police station there.

The result was a bloody clash with residents of the camp, who label the current Shiite-led Iraqi government as a mere lackey of the Iranians next door. The MEK, which has a sophisticated public relations wing, put videos of the Iraqi incursion on YouTube, showing Iraqi Humvees running people down.

Days later, when a few journalists entered the camp along with the Iraqi police, crowds awaited behind a barrier. The crowd held up placards of 11 residents they said had been killed by the police. They also complained that 36 people had been arrested.

The Iraqi government won’t allow journalists inside the camp. Hossein Amini, an MEK spokesman, spoke to NPR by telephone.

Amini says those arrested were transferred to Baghdad, where they declared a hunger strike. He says Iraqi officials beat the MEK members at a prison inside the Green Zone, near the American embassy, and demanded that they agree to leave Iraq. A local Iraqi court ordered the 36 detainees released, but Amini says the government in Baghdad ignored the law.

“In the beginning, the charge was that they had resisted the police in the raid. And … they were charged with illegal entry into Iraq after 25 years,” Amini says.

Last month, after seven weeks in detention and a long hunger strike, the MEK detainees were released, and they are now back at Camp Ashraf.

‘They Have No Status’

But all 3,400 members of the MEK remain in limbo. They claim a right to shelter in Iraq as refugees. The Iraqi government begs to differ.

“We had inherited them from the past regime. They have no status,” says Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh.

Dabbagh says Iraq cannot host a group that is dedicated to overthrowing the neighboring government in Tehran. Still, he says they won’t be deported to Iran, where they could face prison or execution.

“They are being treated as guests in Iraq. We are going to deal and treat them as per the humanitarian law. And we are not going to deport them, neither to Iran nor to any country, against their will,” he says.

Human rights groups have criticized Iraq for its heavy hand during the June incursion. It was especially embarrassing for the Americans, who stood by as Iraqi forces used U.S.-supplied Humvees to run over unarmed civilians.

But Western governments aren’t lining up to accept the MEK, and the group appears determined to live out its days as an unwelcome guest in Iraq.



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