Dissident Iranians Live In Limbo In Iraq
    Heard on Morning Edition
    November 2, 2009 - STEVE INSKEEP, host:
    Iraq is trying to get rid of some unwelcome guests. The guests are a group of exiles from neighboring Iran. They are opponents of Iran's government, and they would like very much to be friends with the West, though they are also labeled a terrorist organization.
    The United States has protected this group of exiles in the past, but now Iraq's new government would like them to leave. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports on the reason.
    QUIL LAWRENCE: The Mujahideen-e Khalq organization was part of the alliance that overthrew the Shah of Iran in 1979, but they quickly ran afoul of the Islamic Revolution. The MEK moved to Iraq in the 1980s, and several thousand of them have lived ever since at Camp Ashraf, north of Baghdad.
    Shelter in Iraq came at a price, though. Saddam Hussein put them to work against their own country during the Iran-Iraq war. And he had other jobs for them, as well.
    Mr. ALI AL-ZUHAIRI (Tribal Sheikh): (Foreign language spoken)
    LAWRENCE: Ali al-Zuhairi is a tribal sheikh in the town of Khalis, near Camp Ashraf. He recalls bitterly how the MEK helped Saddam put down the Shiite and Kurdish uprisings in 1991. Zuhairi claims the MEK killed the rebel Iraqis and left their bodies in the street. He calls them terrorists.
    And officially, the U.S. government agrees, and designates the MEK as a foreign terrorist organization. But on the ground in Iraq, the U.S. treats them differently, says Mohammad al-Shemari, another resident of Khalis.
    Mr. MOHAMMAD AL-SHEMARI: (Foreign language spoken)
    LAWRENCE: When they got rid of Saddam, we thought the Americans would also remove the Mujahedeen, Shemari says. But instead, he adds, the Americans are using them against Iran.
    For six years, U.S. forces protected Camp Ashraf and debriefed the MEK for intelligence about Iran. But on June 30th, American forces ceded security control to the Iraqi government. One of the first things the Iraqi government did was force its way into Camp Ashraf to put a police station there.
    (Soundbite of crowd chatter, police whistle)
    LAWRENCE: The result was a bloody clash with residents of the camp, who label the current Shiite-led Iraqi government a mere lackey of the Iranians next door. The MEK, which has a sophisticated PR wing, put videos of the Iraqi incursion on YouTube, showing Iraqi Humvees running people down. Days later, when a few journalists entered the camp along with the Iraqi police, crowds awaited behind a barrier.
    Unidentified Group: (Chanting in foreign language)
    LAWRENCE: The crowd held up placards of 11 residents they said had been killed by the police. They also complained that 36 people had been arrested. The Iraqi government won't allow journalists inside the camp, so Hossein Amini, an MEK spokesman, spoke by telephone.
    Mr. HOSSEIN AMINI (Spokesman, Mujahideen-e Khalq): The government forcefully transferred them to Baghdad. They declared absolute hunger strike, and they did not even drink water.
    LAWRENCE: Amini says Iraqi officials beat the MEK members at a prison inside the Green Zone near the American embassy, and demanded they agree to leave Iraq. A local Iraqi court ordered the 36 detainees released, but Amini says the government in Baghdad ignored the law.
    Mr. AMINI: In the beginning, the charge was that they had resisted the police in the raid. And there was another - they were charged with illegal entry into Iraq after 25 years.
    LAWRENCE: After seven weeks in detention and a long hunger strike, the MEK detainees were released and are now back at Camp Ashraf. But all 3,400 members of the MEK remain in limbo. They claim a right to shelter in Iraq as refugees. The Iraqi government begs to differ.
    Mr. ALI AL-DABBAGH (Spokesman, Iraqi Government): We had inherited them from the past regime. They are no status. It is de facto issue.
    LAWRENCE: Government spokesman Ali Dabbagh says Iraq cannot host a group that is dedicated to overthrowing the neighboring government in Tehran. Still, he says they won't be deported to Iran, where they could face prison or execution.
    Mr. AL-DABBAGH: They are being treated as a guest in Iraq. We are going to deal and treat them as per the humanitarian law. And we are not going to deport them, neither to Iran nor to any country, against their will.
    LAWRENCE: Human rights groups have criticized Iraq for its heavy hand during the June incursion. It was especially embarrassing for the Americans, who stood by as Iraq used American-supplied Humvees to run over unarmed civilians in Camp Ashraf. But Western governments aren't lining up to accept the MEK, and the group appears determined to live out its days as an unwelcome guest in Iraq.
    Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Baghdad
    source: npr.org

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