BAGHDAD (AP) — Lugging clothes, tables and whatever else they could carry, roughly 400 members of an Iranian exile group reluctantly moved Saturday from their camp in northwestern Iraq to a deserted military base outside the capital in what they called a show of good faith that they eventually will be allowed to leave the country peacefully.
It was the first group to move of the more than 3,300 members of the People’s Mujahedeen Organization of Iran who have lived at Camp Ashraf for three decades.
They left under pressure from the Iraqi government, whose army stormed Ashraf last April in a raid that left 34 of the exiles dead.
The United Nations also wants the exiles to move to the Camp Liberty military base outside Baghdad, where they can be screened for asylum eligibility and, presumably, better protected.
The process of moving the exiles to the new location has proceeded in fits and starts over recent months. Iraqi soldiers searched the exiles for almost an entire day before they left Ashraf, and they were being searched again Saturday morning before they were allowed into Liberty.
Members were reluctant to leave their home, which they turned into a miniature city with parks and a university, in favor of an abandoned military base. Residents have not strayed outside for years.
“People are very upset,” said Bahzad Saffari, 50, a camp resident since 2003 who was among the first group of exiles to go. “It took many days to convince them to go.”
He said soldiers ordered the exiles to leave some of their heirlooms behind, including photographs, microwave ovens, satellite dishes for Internet access and, in one case, a pair of therapeutic socks.
“They say it has metal in the socks and so they must be bulletproof,” Saffari said as the exiles were being searched at the camp. “Who wears bulletproof socks? Some of the people are very much bothered and they said, ‘If it is going to be like this, you can imagine how Liberty will be.'”
“This is to break the morale of the people.”
A spokesman for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the exiles are in Iraq illegally but that the move is a first step toward to sending them out of the country.
“We consider the moving of Ashraf people to the new location as a positive step toward reaching a final solution for their presence in Iraq and sending them to a third country,” al-Maliki media adviser Ali al-Moussawi said Friday night. “During the past years, the presence of the (exiles) has represented a problem to the Iraqi government because their staying was illegal, and it was a source of irritation to some neighboring countries.”
The People’s Mujahedeen, which seeks the overthrow of Tehran’s clerical rulers, has been labeled everything from a cult to a terrorist organization — although one that has provided the U.S. with intelligence on Iran. The group says it renounced violence in 2001, after carrying out bloody bombings and assassinations in Iran in the 1980s.
Also known by its Farsi name, the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, the group is the militant wing of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran. The U.S. considers it a terrorist organization although the European Union removed it from its terror list two years ago.
They were welcomed to Iraq by Saddam Hussein during the 1980s in a common fight against Iran. But since Saddam’s ouster they have been an irritant to the Iraqi government and which is trying to build stronger ties with Iran.
Al-Maliki sees the group’s presence as an affront to Iraqi sovereignty, and last spring ordered Ashraf to close by the end of 2011. The U.N however has dubbed the forced removal of Ashraf residents as “ill-advised and unacceptable.”
Ashraf is located in the desert near the Iranian border, about 60 miles (95 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad.
Until recently, the exiles refused to go. In December, the group’s Paris-based head, Maryam Rajavi, agreed to move 400 residents to Camp Liberty in a show of goodwill as the U.N. tries to broker a compromise between the two sides. In a statement this week, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said Iraq’s government has agreed to let Ashraf stay open until April 30 to give the exiles more time to move.
In the meantime, “any provocation or violence must be avoided and would be unacceptable,” Ban said.
The U.N. mission in Iraq has been frantically working to relocate the exiles in other countries. But as of Friday, fewer than 30 have been granted asylum, said Ashraf chief spokesman Shahriar Kia.
Ban’s statement urged member states to help relocate eligible residents of Camp Ashraf who wish to resettle in third countries. Returning to Iran is unlikely because of their opposition to the regime.
Camp Liberty, which sits next to Baghdad’s international airport, was a sprawling U.S. Army base until the American military withdrew from Iraq in December. The Ashraf residents fear it will be a cramped “prison” where they will be barred from moving around and lack clean water, security and free medical services.
An Associated Press photographer who on Friday was allowed into one of the areas of Camp Liberty where the exiles will live described it as surrounded by concrete blast barriers to protect about 140 temporary buildings that each will house nine people. There is a refrigerator and an air conditioner in each building, and portable bathrooms and a dining hall on the compound that will be guarded by Iraqi army soldiers.
They are leaving what Rajavi in December described as a “modern city” with a university, library, museum, hospital, power station, cemetery, mosque, parks, lake, sports and recreation facilities, and underground bomb shelters. Ashraf residents have not left the camp for years, and the little contact they have with outsiders in Iraq is through the Iraqi military, visiting diplomats and aid agencies. They do have extensive communications equipment that allows them to communicate with the outside world.
Kia said the eldest exile who moved Saturday is 70 years old.
Saffari said none of the exiles wanted to go but agreed to be among the first tranche when Ashraf’s leaders asked for volunteers.
After Saddam fell, U.S. troops took control of Camp Ashraf, disarmed its fighters and confined the residents to their 30-square-mile (78-square-kilometer) camp. In return, the military signed an agreement with the camp giving the residents protected status under the Geneva Conventions. But the U.S. turned over those responsibilities to the Iraqi government in 2008.
The International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, which oversees whether nations are complying with the Geneva treaties, is helping resettle the exiles in other countries once the U.N. determines asylum eligibility for each that would grant them, individually, protected status.
Associated Press Writer Sameer N. Yacoub and Photographers Karim Kadim and Hadi Mizban contributed to this report.