* Crimes against humanity
* First case against foreigners for Saddam-era crimes
By Muhanad Mohammed
BAGHDAD, July 11 (Reuters) - An Iraqi court ordered the arrest of 39 members of an exiled Iranian opposition group, accusing them of crimes against humanity in helping Saddam Hussein to crush a revolt almost two decades ago, a judge said on Sunday.
The 39 are members of the People’s Mujahideen Organisation of Iran (PMOI), a guerrilla movement opposed to the Iranian government. It sided with the toppled Iraqi dictator, a Sunni Muslim, during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s but has denied helping Saddam to crack down on long-oppressed majority Shi’ites and ethnic Kurds.
Iran, Iraq and the United States consider the PMOI a terrorist organisation and the now Shi’ite-led Iraqi government has been trying to get it to vacate a base north of Baghdad where around 3,500 of its members have lived for 20 years.
"An arrest warrant has been issued against 39 leaders and members of the organisation including the PMOI’s head Massoud Rajavi, due to evidence that confirms they committed crimes against humanity," said Judge Mohammed Abdul-Sahib, a spokesman of the Iraqi High Tribunal.
Rajavi’s wife Maryam, leader of the French-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the PMOI’s political wing, was also included in the warrant, Abdul Sahib added.
"The 39 Iranian suspects were involved with the former Iraqi security forces in suppressing the 1991 (Shi’ite) uprising against the former Iraqi regime and the killing of Iraqi citizens," he said.
The PMOI began as an Islamist leftist group opposed to Iran’s late Shah, but fell out with Shi’ite clerics who took power after the 1979 revolution. Mujahideen guerrillas carried out attacks against Iranian targets. Iran executed a large number of PMOI prisoners at the end of the Iran-Iraq war.
Last year, Iraq said it wanted the Iranian opposition exiles based at Camp Ashraf north of Baghdad to leave the country. Iraqi forces took over responsibility for the camp on Jan. 1, 2009 from U.S. troops, who had been guarding it.
Violence erupted there last year when Iraqi security forces tried to enter the camp. At least seven exiles were killed.
Mahdi Uqbaai, a spokesman of the PMOI, said the court was pressured by the government to order the arrests.
"This is a politically motivated decision and it’s the last gift presented from the government of (Prime Minister) Nuri al-Maliki to the Iranian government," said Uqbaai.
The Iraqi High Tribunal was set up after the 2003 invasion to prosecute crimes against humanity and genocide committed during Saddam’s rule. Any case against the PMOI would be its first against foreigners for Saddam-era crimes. (Editing by Rania El Gamal; editing by David Stamp)