November 20, 2017

Iranian Resistance Group Criticizes Iraq’s Efforts to Expel It

By Sam Dagher
New York Times

BAGHDAD — An Iranian resistance group on Monday condemned a renewed push by the Iraqi government to deport its members as a result of undue Iranian influence.

Some 3,800 members of the group, the People’s Mujahedeen, live in a fenced-off camp north of Baghdad, where they have enjoyed the protection of the American military since 2003. The Iraqi government notified the group on Sunday of plans to shut the camp and evict its residents as Iraqi forces take control of the area from the United States.

“This reflects the hysterical pressure being applied by the regime of the mullahs on the Iraqi government after it signed the security agreement with America,” said a statement by the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran, an umbrella group of which the People’s Mujahedeen is the largest component.

Analysts and Iraqi opposition politicians said that the Iraqi government’s determination to expel the group may be an effort to appease Iran, which had initially expressed strong opposition to the security agreement concluded last month between Iraq and the United States.

The group, which began as part of the Iranian resistance to Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s rule in the mid-1960s, was driven into exile after Iran’s 1979 revolution and re-formed in Iraq, where it was nurtured by Saddam Hussein. After the American invasion, it was disarmed and its members recognized as refugees by the United Nations.

On Sunday, the Iraqi government’s national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, met with the group’s leaders at their base, Camp Ashraf in Diyala Province.

“They were told that the government has plans to close the camp and deport its inhabitants to their native country, or voluntarily to a third country, and that staying in Iraq was not an option,” said a statement issued by Rubaie on Monday.

He said the transfer of security responsibilities for the camp from the American military to Iraqi forces was already under way. He said the group was a “terrorist organization” and was “no longer permitted to engage in any political, media, cultural, religious or social activity in Iraq.”

The group was listed as a terrorist organization by the United States in 1997 and by the European Union in 2002. But in May, Britain’s Court of Appeal ruled that the British government was wrong to include the group on its list of banned terrorist groups.

In 2002, it provided intelligence on Iran’s secret efforts to enrich uranium, which led to United Nations sanctions against Iran and a confrontation with the West that continues today.

Since 2003, the group has been thrown into the middle of Washington’s foreign policy dilemmas over what to do about Iran. Despite being officially labeled a terrorist group, it has been protected by American soldiers in Iraq since 2003.

The State Department declined to comment Monday on the planned eviction.

The camp, a sprawling and self-contained gated community, is a virtual oasis in an arid patch of Diyala. During a visit in 2007, this reporter saw American soldiers from an adjacent military base securing the perimeter.

Past the gate, members of the group, many of them women in tan uniforms, drove jeeps past manicured parks, artificial lakes and giant sculptures. One sculpture depicts a dove being released by an extended hand. The compound houses clinics, schools and workshops.

Since 2003 the People’s Mujahedeen, who are mostly Shiite, have been assiduously courting Sunni politicians and tribal leaders in the area. In June, they held a large gathering at their camp attended by several prominent Sunni Arab members of Parliament who are openly hostile to the Iranian government. This meeting set off a political storm in Baghdad, with Shiite parties close to Iran calling for the censure of the members.

Ali Ansari, director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, said the group was “rapidly becoming a political football in the purest sense.” He said the Iraqi government saw ridding itself of the group as way to improve relations with Iran, which remains fearful that the group may rearm.

Muhammad al-Daini, a Sunni member of Parliament, says the government is making a mistake by bowing to Iranian pressure to expel the People’s Mujahedeen before getting firm commitments from Tehran that it will no longer arm and finance militias in Iraq. “We cannot blindly accept Iran’s dictates,” he said.

During his visit to Baghdad in March, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran was promised that the People’s Mujahedeen would be expelled.

“We will strive to get rid of them,” the Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, said at a news conference with Ahmadinejad.