BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq has moved most Iranian dissidents out of a camp they have lived in for decades to a former U.S. military base in Baghdad, officials said on Sunday, a step that could help pave the way to the group being dropped from a U.S. terrorism blacklist.
Iraqi and U.S. officials said that about 680 members of the People’s Mujahideen Organisation of Iran (PMOI) were transferred from Camp Ashraf to Camp Hurriya on Sunday, representing the last major relocation of members of the group and ending a standoff.
“Of the 3,280 residents originally in Camp Ashraf, only a small group now remains on a temporary basis to arrange the details pursuant to the closure of the camp,” said Martin Kobler, special representative of the U.N. Secretary-General in Iraq.
The PMOI, listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, was once sheltered by Saddam Hussein and fell out of favor with Baghdad after the Iraqi dictator’s downfall.
The group, which calls for the overthrow of Iran’s clerical leaders and fought alongside Saddam’s forces in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, is no longer welcome in Iraq under the Shi’ite Muslim-led government that came to power after U.S.-led forces invaded and toppled Saddam in 2003.
Clashes between Ashraf residents and Iraqi security forces last year killed 34 people.
Ashraf residents agreed in February to move to the new camp, where the United Nations intends to process them for refugee status in other countries, but they have complained that the conditions at the new base are poor and that they have not been permitted to bring many of their personal belongings.
The group surrendered weapons to U.S. forces after the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the fate of Ashraf’s residents has been in question since Iraqi authorities took over the camp from U.S. forces in 2009 under a bilateral security pact.
The United States added the PMOI, also known as the Mujahadin-e Khalq (MEK), to its list of foreign terrorist organizations in 1997, but the group has since said that it has renounced violence and has mounted a legal and public relations campaign to have the designation dropped.
Uday al-Khadran, mayor of the nearby town of Khalis, said there was now only a small number of dissidents remaining in Ashraf.
In February, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the PMOI’s cooperation in moving residents from Camp Ashraf would be a “key factor” as the United States weighs whether to remove it from the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations.
In a statement issued in Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland did not directly address the issue of the list but she made clear that the United States was pleased that the last major group had left Ashraf.
“This convoy represents the last major relocation of residents from former Camp Ashraf to Camp Hurriya and marks a significant milestone in efforts to achieve a sustainable humanitarian solution to this issue,” Nuland said.
“We welcome the cooperation by the former Ashraf residents in this relocation,” she added.
Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad and Ali Mohammed in Baquba; additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by David Brunnstrom