RPT-Iraq urges foreign states to accept Iranian rebels

Fri Mar 20, 2009 4:00am EDT

(Repeats story)

By Mohammed Abbas

BAGHDAD, March 19 (Reuters) - Iraq has appealed to foreign countries to accept members of an Iranian opposition group, which has been based in Iraq for about two decades but which Baghdad sees as a terrorist group and a diplomatic liability.

Iraqi officials and the People's Mujahideen of Iran (PMOI) have been at loggerheads for years. The PMOI has run a high-profile campaign alleging abuses by the Iraqi government, and Iraq has labelled its members terrorists and liars.

The PMOI began as a group of Islamist leftists opposed to Iran's shah but fell out with Shi'ite clerics who took power after the 1979 revolution.

Allowed to operate in Iraq by Saddam Hussein, who waged war with Iran in the 1980s, the group has been less welcome under the new Shi'ite-led government, which has mostly warm ties with neighbouring Shi'ite Iran.

"We do not wish to take responsibility for the sin of the presence of a terrorist organisation in Iraq, which causes us domestic problems and problems with countries of the region," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told Reuters.

"We ask the international community ... to find another place for them other than Iraq," he added.

No country has yet come forward, Dabbagh said. The United States views the PMOI as a terrorist group, but the European Union agreed to take the group off its list of terrorist organisations following a protracted legal battle.

Human rights groups say forcing the 3,500 PMOI members out of their base at Camp Ashraf in northeastern Iraq would violate international law. The PMOI says Iraqi forces have beaten them, blocked aid and besieged their camp, charges Iraq denies.

There has been speculation that an unmanned Iranian aircraft that U.S. forces say they shot down over Iraq in February may have been monitoring PMOI activity.

Dabbagh did not confirm whether the downed aircraft was a drone or where it came from, but said Iraq placed high importance on maintaining good ties with Iran.

"With have joint concerns, problems, and want to develop our relationship and remove the fuse from any crisis that may happen," he said when questioned about the drone. (Additional reporting by Missy Ryan, Writing by Mohammed Abbas: Editing by Richard Balmforth)