Iranian exiles move to new Iraq camp

AFP , Saturday 18 Feb 2012

Aiming to close Camp Ashraf, Iraqi government moved hundred Iranian exiles to a UN-approved site near Baghdad in the first step to move to other countries, after spending decades in Iraq

Several hundred Iranian exiles arrived at a UN-approved site near Baghdad on Saturday, a first step in a process that aims to see them resettled outside Iraq, where they have been based for decades.

The move is part of a December 25 deal between the UN and Iraq, reached after extensive talks, under which around 3,400 Iranians opposed to the regime in Tehran are to move from their long-time base, Camp Ashraf, to a new location called Camp Liberty, with the aim of eventually moving them to other countries.

"We are arriving at the gate to (Camp) Liberty," Behzad Saffari, the legal adviser for residents of Camp Ashraf, told AFP by telephone around 6:00 am (0300 GMT).

The 397 exiles had departed Camp Ashraf in 18 buses beginning about 1:30 am on Saturday, escorted by Iraqi security forces, Saffari said.

However, the arrival at Camp Liberty was not without problems.

Saffari said around 2:40 pm that only one bus had actually entered the camp, as residents objected to additional searches of their belongings, which had already been searched in a nearly 12-hour process prior to leaving Camp Ashraf.

Eventually, "the residents gave a concession for their stuff to be searched by the dogs, although this is crazy," he said, adding that the process had begun and the buses would be unloaded one by one.

It was not possible to independently verify the account, as journalists were not permitted to go to the camp.

Iraq had aimed, by the end of last year, to close Camp Ashraf in Diyala province, which now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein allowed the People's Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran (PMOI) to set up during his 1980-88 war with Iran.

But Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on December 21 that his government had agreed to extend the deadline to April, and signed the deal with the UN on moving the exiles a few days later.

UN envoy to Iraq Martin Kobler was present when the exiles arrived at Camp Liberty and welcomed the move, according to a statement from the UN.

"I commend the residents for their decision to move to Camp Hurriya (Liberty). This is the first step towards a better future outside Iraq. I look forward to their continued cooperation with the Iraqi authorities to complete the relocation without delay," the statement quoted him as saying.

Kobler said the UN would monitor the entire relocation process and provide round-the-clock human rights monitoring at Camp Liberty, and called called on potential countries of asylum to confirm their readiness to take in the exiles, whose situation in Iraq has been a long-running sore.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran, an umbrella group that includes the PMOI, has complained about the conditions at Camp Liberty, and called for Iraqi police to be withdrawn from the camp before additional exiles move there.

The left-wing PMOI was founded in the 1960s to oppose the shah of Iran, but took up arms against Iran's new clerical rulers after the Islamic revolution in 1979. It said in 2001 that it had renounced violence.

The US State Department has blacklisted it as a terrorist organisation since 1997, and says members of the group carried out a large number of attacks over several decades against Iranian targets, and also against Americans.

The PMOI strongly opposes the terrorist designation and is seeking to have it lifted in the United States, as it has been in Europe.

In May 2005, Human Rights Watch cited former PMOI members as having "reported abuses ranging from detention and persecution of ordinary members wishing to leave the organisation, to lengthy solitary confinements, severe beatings and torture of dissident members."

Camp Ashraf was disarmed following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and came under US military protection, but American forces handed over security responsibilities to the Baghdad authorities in January 2009.

Iraqi security forces raided Camp Ashraf in July 2009, leading to clashes in which 11 residents were said to have been killed and several hundred wounded.

Camp Ashraf has been back in the spotlight since a controversial April 2011 raid by Iraqi security forces left 36 people dead and scores injured.

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