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Iran Exiles Say They've Won Safety For Iraq Camp Inmates

GENEVA (Reuters) -- Iranian opposition leaders have claimed victory in their campaign to ensure continued U.S. protection for 3,500 fellow exiles in a camp north of Baghdad that the Iraqi government says it wants to close.

Speaking as a five-month demonstration in Geneva in support of the camp in the township of Ashraf concluded, they said a statement from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad meant the people there could stay on in safety.

"This is a real victory," Mohammad Mohaddesin, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the French-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) told reporters outside the United Nations European headquarters.

"It means the United States has recognized its responsibility to ensure the safety and security of our people in Ashraf," said Ali Safavi, another official of NCRI, political wing of the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO). "We can now halt our sit-in. We have got what we wanted."

The embassy statement in Baghdad said U.S. forces will maintain a presence in Ashraf, which has sheltered exile Iranians for 20 years, after Iraq takes over responsibility for the camp on January 1.

On December 21, the Shi'ite-led Iraqi government told the camp's residents that it planned to close Ashraf down and that they had to leave the country. The exiles feared they would be forcibly returned to Iran, where they say they face death.

The MKO has been listed as a terrorist group in the United States and Europe since the late 1990s. The Iraqi government, which is friendly to Shi'ite Iran, itself regards the MKO as a terrorist grouping.

But a Swiss lawyer for NCRI said the U.S. decision to stay at the camp and a European Union court ruling in early December against a Brussels move to freeze the MKO's assets indicated the Western front against the group was crumbling.

"We might see a stronger move in the next few days," declared the lawyer, Marc Henzelin. The outgoing U.S. administration of George W.Bush could decide to remove the MKO from its terror blacklist before handing over, he added.

The U.S. statement said that U.S. forces, who have protected the camp since MKO fighters there handed over their weapons in 2003, would help Iraq "in carrying out its assurances of humane treatment of the residents of Camp Ashraf."

The United States, together with the Iraqis, would work with international organizations "to assist the camp residents in securing a safe future," it added.