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Nothing Simple About Disbanding Of Iranian Rebel Camp In Iraq

Female militants of the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO) at Camp Ashraf in 2006.
Female militants of the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO) at Camp Ashraf in 2006.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has found himself sandwiched between the demands of an influential neighbor, Iran, and the presence of a large occupation force of mostly U.S. soldiers, assured Iranian leaders during a recent visit to Tehran that a "solution acceptable to all parties" was imminent to the contentious issue of an Iranian rebel camp on Iraqi soil.

Camp Ashraf, located north of Baghdad and close to the Iranian border, houses some 3,500 rebels belonging to the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO), an Iranian opposition group.

On December 21, an Iraqi government representative traveled to the camp to tell its residents that the camp will be disbanded and that they "may go to any country of their choice."

Iraq "is responsible for their security, and it continues to implement its plans to shut down the camp and to either deport its population to their own country or to a third country," according to a statement issued by Iraqi national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i after that visit. "Remaining in Iraq is not an option for them."

Founded in 1965 to fight the shah's regime with terrorist attacks, the MKO soon turned against the Islamic regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the 1980s and its members were expelled from Iran after a crackdown. They settled in Iraq, mostly in Camp Ashraf, and were supported and used by former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in his 1980-88 war against Iran.

That controversial alliance with Hussein made the rebel group extremely unpopular with other Iranian opposition groups. The MKO has been listed by both the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organization.

After the overthrow of Hussein in 2003, U.S. forces disarmed the MKO rebels but stopped short of disbanding the camp, putting it instead under military protection. Some analysts have suggested that Washington views the MKO as a source of intelligence and leverage against Iran.

When U.S. troops start gradually withdrawing from the country in accordance with a security pact signed between Washington and Baghdad, the protection of Camp Ashraf will be turned over to Iraq. News agencies have reported that the Bulgarian mission charged with guarding the camp will end on March 31.

Tehran has been pressuring the Iraqi government to extradite the rebels, but organizations such as Amnesty International have urged Baghdad against any forcible returns, believing the rebels could face execution or torture.

The White House said last week that it has received written assurances from the Iraqi government that "no one will be forcibly transferred to a country where they fear persecution."

Concerned About Consequences

In November, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asked the U.S. and Iraqi governments not to extradite the camp's residents to Iran. Dorothy Krimitsas, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), told RFE/RL's Radio Farda last week that ICRC representatives visit the camp regularly.

Krimitsas said camp residents are concerned about the possible consequences of the security takeover by Iraq, adding that the United States and Iraq are responsible for the lives of those living in Camp Ashraf.

Nobody doubts that the decision to disband the camp will be implemented, probably by the end of March. Some camp residents may voluntarily decide to return to Iran, but most of them are expected to seek political asylum in Western countries.

Third countries are hardly likely to grant asylum to more than 3,000 former members of a terrorist organization within the space of three months, however. There have been no reports of any serious efforts to accommodate them temporarily until their asylum requests are processed.

Tehran might welcome that failure as a pretext to "welcome" more former fighters back home.

In any event, Tehran would prefer to see the camp closed and its 3,500 rebels stamped as terrorists removed from its immediate neighborhood.

Either way, the dispersal of its members across the globe will be a devastating blow to the MKO, which once claimed to be Iran's "best-organized armed opposition" group, but which will now have more marginal leverage.

Abbas Djavadi is associate director of broadcasting for RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL