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Iraqi Army Besieges Iranian Exile Camp


Iranian militants of the opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization at Camp Ashraf

Iranian militants of the opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization at Camp Ashraf

BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Iraqi forces have besieged a camp housing Iranian exiles in Iraq, residents and a security official have said, after the national security adviser reiterated a vow to shut the place down.

A source at Iraq's Interior Ministry said Iraqi soldiers surrounded Camp Ashraf on March 12 after residents resisted an attempt to clear them out of one building inside it. The soldiers were blocking fuel and medicines getting in, he said.

National security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i pledged in January to close the camp, home to 3,500 people, by late March.

"Iraqi forces have made a siege around the camp. No one is allowed to enter or leave," the source said late March 15. "We have instructions from Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i to seal it off."

Rubay'i was not available for comment, but an official in his office, who declined to be named, because he was not authorized to speak, denied that security forces had surrounded the camp.

On a visit to Iran on January 23, Rubay'i said Camp Ashraf would be "part of history within two months". In a statement on March 13, his office reiterated his intention to shut it.

"The government will not go back on its decision to close down the camp...residents have the choice between returning to Iran or going to a third country," the statement said.

Leaders of the Iranian opposition group, which has been based at Ashraf north of Baghdad for around two decades, said Iraqi security forces hit residents with electric batons.

"They threatened them to leave, blocked basic necessities from coming in and sending trucks back: these are violations of the Geneva Convention," Shahriar Kia, spokesman for the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO) in the camp, said by telephone.

The Interior Ministry official also said Iraqi troops beat residents before U.S. forces helping guard the camp stepped in.

The fate of Ashraf's residents has been in limbo since Iraq took it over from U.S. forces this year. Iraq's Shi'ite Muslim leaders are friendly with Tehran, which wants the camp closed and a list of wanted MKO members handed over for trial.

Human rights groups say driving residents out against their will would violate international law.

The government views the MKO as terrorists, as do the United States and Iran. Last month the European Union agreed to take it off its list of terrorist organizations.

The MKO began as a group of Islamist leftists opposed to Iran's shah, but fell out with the Shi'ite clerics who took power after the 1979 revolution.
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