Closing Camp Ashraf
A camp for exiled Iranians in Iraq is turning from being a pawn in a political chess game into a timebomb in an already violence-battered country, writes Salah Nasrawi
A row over the fate of a few hundred opponents of the Iranian regime in Iraq has been given new life after Iraq said it planned to close an Iranian refugee camp occupied by the opposition group the People's Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI).
During a visit to Tehran last week, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said Camp Ashraf, which Iran claims is being used by the group to destabilise the regime, would be closed at the end of the year.
"We in Iraq have suffered tremendously because of terrorism, and we are determined to prevent any threat to the sovereignty and independence of our neighbours," Talabani told a counter-terrorism summit in Tehran.
Talabani claimed that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was part of a "tripartite committee" formed with Iran and Iraq that had agreed to close the camp, a claim the Red Cross promptly denied.
"The ICRC will not be a part of the committee reportedly being formed to close down Camp Ashraf," Magne Barth, head of the ICRC delegation in Iraq, said in a statement.
Talabani's remarks constituted the kind of support Iran had been looking for from the gathering, organised as a showcase for its efforts in fighting terrorism and used as a platform for its propaganda against the PMOI and other opposition groups that Iran charges are terrorists.
Iranian officials have repeatedly called for the closure of the camp, about 60km west of its borders, and the expulsion of the group from Iraq.
Iranian Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi disclosed last week that Iranian and Iraqi officials had held talks in Iraq shortly before Talabani's visit in order to decide the fate of Camp Ashraf.
"The ministry has a number of ideas on the agenda and is taking action to break up this terrorist group," the minister was quoted as saying by a local news agency. The statement was a clear warning that Iran was preparing to act on its own if the Iraqis failed to shut down the camp.
In response, the PMOI blasted the move and accused Iraqi leaders of being Iranian "proxies".
"The decision to close down Camp Ashraf and suppress the Iranian opposition is not relevant to Iraq's sovereignty and is just a dictate by the clerical regime to the Iraqi government," said the group in a statement from its Paris headquarters.
Named in commemoration of Ashraf Rajavi, a founder of the group slain by Iranian Revolutionary Guards shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the camp was home to thousands of members of the group who fought to overthrow the Islamic regime in Tehran.
The PMOI was founded in 1965 by a group of militant Islamic-Marxist students who advocated the overthrow of the Shah's regime. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the group initially sided with Ayatollah Khomeini against moderate forces within the revolution, only to fall out with him two years later.
A harsh crackdown by the Revolutionary Guards forced the group to go underground and its leaders to flee Iran. Later, it moved to Iraq, whose regime, led by former president Saddam Hussein, was engaged in a war with Iran.
Along with at least six other sites, Camp Ashraf was allocated to the PMOI as a headquarters and training site by the Iraqis. From this base, PMOI fighters equipped with weapons supplied by Saddam or taken from Iranian troops during the war launched attacks inside Iranian territory.
They continued to mount attacks inside Iran until 1999, but after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 the group claimed to have renounced violence and said it was now dedicated to a democratic and secular government in Iran.
Most of its members have since left Iraq for exile in other countries.
Unanswered up to now has been the question of why the US military following its occupation of Iraq did not dismantle the camp as it did Saddam's army and security forces.
Another question is why Washington did not try to resettle the camp's residents in the US or arrange to move them somewhere else to resolve what was becoming a simmering dispute.
Officially, the United States considers the PMOI to be a terrorist group, but the American military has up to now resisted Iraqi government attempts to close down the camp or relocate its residents to other sites inside Iraq.
Some American congressmen have even pressed the US administration to stop the Iraqi government from harassing residents in the camp, urging the US army to provide them with protection.
Early this month, a US congressional delegation led by Dana Rohrabacher, a key member of the House of Representatives, triggered a diplomatic row when it tried to visit the camp and was prevented by the Iraqi government.
Some reports have suggested that top US military commanders had reached a deal with the Mojahedin in which camp residents were allowed to stay after they had agreed to disarm and cooperate with the invading forces before, during and after the 2003 war.
Writing in Time magazine on 18 April, Michael B Mukasey, who served as US attorney-general during the Bush administration, and Louis Freeh, who served as director of the FBI, disclosed that the US had promised the camp residents protected-person status as civilians under the Fourth Geneva Convention after the group had given up its weapons after the 2003 war and signed a commitment renouncing violence.
Neither the US administration nor the Iraqi government has confirmed the report. References by the United States to the 1949 Geneva Conventions relating to its war in Iraq would be tantamount to admitting that it is an occupying force, an argument it has always rejected.
One explanation as to why the Americans are keen to hold on to the PMOI, dismissed by many observers as irrelevant and having a doubtful past and shadowy tactics, is that the United States probably needs the group in order to use it in any future military confrontation with Iran over its nuclear programme.
At any rate, the current Iraqi Shia and Kurdish-led government in Baghdad seems determined to close the camp. Many of its leaders, including Talabani and Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, lived in Iran or received Iranian support during the fight against the Saddam regime and may feel grateful for Tehran's hospitality.
The leaders also accuse the group of cooperating with Iraqi security forces in rooting out domestic opponents of the Saddam regime and participating in the brutal repression of uprisings led by the Shias and Kurds in 1991.
The camp has come under attack by Iraqi government forces several times over recent years. On 8 April, Iraqi armed forces launched a military attack on the camp, killing 36 and injuring hundreds of other men and women.
Videotapes posted on Internet social networks showed several dozen unarmed residents being deliberately run over by military vehicles in an attack.
Meanwhile, Iraqi Sunni groups are lending their support to the group and have been resisting attempts to remove them from the camp. The Sunni groups accuse the Iraqi government of acquiescing in Iranian interference in the country's internal affairs.
Leaders of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc in the Iraqi parliament, which also has a considerable number of seats in the government, criticised Talabani's promise to close the camp later this year.
"The discussion of Camp Ashraf with that regime [Iran] has been a great and unacceptable mistake," said Haidar al-Mullah, an Iraqiya spokesman.
The row comes at a time when rival Iraqi political forces have to decide on the future of US troops scheduled to leave the country by the end of the year.
With Iraqi government forces still unprepared to take control, the withdrawal is expected to create a security vacuum that many believe will be filled by Iran.
The dispute over the Iranian opposition camp in Iraq could thus turn into another flashpoint in the beleaguered country, as internal and external rivals remained entangled in the mess of the eight-year American occupation.