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Iraq Says Iranian Opposition Exiles Must Leave

Female Iranian militants of the opposition People's Mujahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI) at Camp Ashraf in 2006
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- The Shi'ite-led Iraqi government has told nearly 3,500 opposition Iranians living in exile in Iraq that it plans to close their camp and they have to leave the country.

A delegation headed by national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i told the Iranians, who have lived for two decades at Camp Ashraf north of Baghdad, that the government was taking over responsibility for their security from U.S. troops.

They told the Iranians the government "is keen to execute its plans to close the camp and send its inhabitants to their countries or other countries in a nonforcible manner, and that staying in Iraq is not an option for them," the government said in a statement.

The Iranians, who include members of the exiled opposition Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO), have lived in the sprawling township 70 kilometers north of Baghdad for around 20 years.

The Iraqi government, which is friendly toward Shi'ite Iran, regards the Iranians as terrorists. The MKO is also listed as a terrorist group in the United States and in Europe.

U.S. forces have protected the exiles since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 after persuading the Iranian group, also known as the People's Mujahedin, to disarm.

Possibility Of Execution

The U.S. military seized and destroyed more than 2,000 tanks, armored personnel carriers, and other weaponry at the time. The group had been protected by Saddam Hussein, who welcomed them as fellow enemies of the Iranian ayatollahs.

The MKO began as a leftist-Islamist opposition to the late shah of Iran but fell out with Shi'ite clerics who took power after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Its leaders fear many of them will be executed if they are forced to go back to Iran. Tehran has long demanded they be expelled from Iraq.

The United Nations has had trouble finding other countries to accept the Iranian exiles as refugees because of their militant background but has urged Iraq to respect their rights.

In the statement, the Iraqi government said people in the camp had been told that carrying out activities whether legal or illegal "against any neighboring country, is a dangerous issue."

Iraq will treat those in the camp "in accordance with Iraqi law, Islamic values, and international order," the statement said.

Amnesty International has urged Iraq and the United States to regard members of the rebel group as "protected persons" under the Fourth Geneva Convention. The 1949 pact bans the extradition or forced repatriation of people who could face torture or persecution.