BAGHDAD – The last big batch of a group of controversial Iranian exiles in Iraq reluctantly left their decades-old home in northeast Iraq on Sunday and moved to a refugee camp outside Baghdad, taking what officials say is a necessary step towards resettling them in other nations.
Washington long has maintained that the members of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq must leave Camp Ashraf in northeast Iraq before the Obama administration will consider taking the group off the U.S. foreign terror organization list — a decision that must be made by Oct. 1.
Lugging whatever personal items they were allowed to carry, the last in a convoy of 680 exiles entered their new home at Camp Liberty on Baghdad's outskirts Sunday morning. The move took several days to complete, and the MEK leadership accused Iraqi forces of harassment and putting the exiles though unnecessary security screening before they were allowed to leave Ashraf.
The MEK, which is also called the People's Mujahedeen of Iran, is group that is in opposition to Tehran's clerical regime and carried out assassinations and bombings in Iran until renouncing violence in 2001. Several thousand of its members were given sanctuary in Iraq by dictator Saddam Hussein.
But the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, which is bolstering its ties with Iran, considers the MEK a terrorist group and says its members are living in Iraq illegally. Iraqi security forces launched two deadly raids since 2009 on Camp Ashraf, an inclusive mini-city located near the Iranian border the exiles never wanted to leave.
Camp Liberty was designed as a compromise way-station for the U.N. to speed the exiles out of Iraq peacefully.
"This is an important step as we near the end of the relocation process," Martin Kobler, top U.N. envoy in Iraq, said in a statement Sunday. "I urge the international community to speed up its efforts to accept residents in third countries."
Several diplomats from at least 15 nations who toured Camp Liberty last week said their governments still are weighing whether to accept the exiles. In all, more than 4,000 exiles need to be resettled. So far, 512 are going through the process of being moved to other counties, and five have already been accepted and left, according to U.N. data dated Sept. 13, the latest figures available Sunday.
Camp Ashraf is not yet closed, however. An estimated 200 exiles remain there to try to sell off the property that was left behind in the move. Gorges Bakoos, who is overseeing the issue for the Iraqi government, said half of them must move to Liberty by the end of September if the property has not been sold to traders. The rest will remain until the rest of the property is disposed of, he said.
The government does not want the MEK to remain at Liberty for every long either, although Bakoos said the exiles will stay there until they are resettled elsewhere. "Liberty is a transitional, temporary location," Bakoos said Sunday. "It is not going to be open forever."
In a statement, Paris-based MEK spokesman Shahin Gobadi said the exiles' convoy was attacked as it left Ashraf and headed to Liberty, and he said 10 of the exiles were wounded. The account could not be independently verified immediately, and the U.N. declined to comment. Bakoos called the convoy peaceful and said the exiles arrived at Liberty safely.
The MEK and Baghdad have sparred in a decade-long dispute between the MEK and Iraq over the fate of the former guerrilla movement.
Gobadi also complained about what he described as "24 hours-long tormenting inspections" of disabled exiles as they prepared to enter Liberty, a move that took several days to complete. At one point, he said, Iraqi forces ordered exiles out of ambulances to search them, and held "patients and their nurses in sunshine without giving them anything to eat or drink."
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