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U.N. chief raises concerns about Iranians in Iraq

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has raised concerns about nearly 3,500 opposition Iranians living in exile in Iraq and regarded as terrorists by the Baghdad government, which wants to expel them.

The Iranians, who include members of the exiled opposition People’s Mujahideen Organization of Iran, have been housed at Camp Ashraf, 70 km (40 miles) north of Baghdad, for two decades.

U.S. forces have protected the exiles since 2003, but the Iraqi government views them as members of a terrorist group and wants them out of Iraq, though it has said it would not forcibly return them to Iran.

Ban has cited a letter circulated last week by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Iraqi government outlining concerns about the Iranians at Camp Ashraf.

The letter “urged the government of Iraq to protect Ashraf residents from forcible deportation, expulsion or repatriation ... and to refrain from any action that would endanger their life or security,” Ban said.

In September a group called the International Committee of Jurists in Defense of Ashraf said that if the U.S. military handed control of the camp to Iraq, the Iranians would be in danger of expulsion to Iran by pro-Shi’ite elements in the Iraqi government

Iraq and the United States signed an accord on Monday requiring Washington to withdraw its forces by the end of 2011.

A group of Iranian exiles has demonstrated for weeks outside the United Nations building in New York to highlight the plight of the people at Camp Ashraf.

A spokesman for the protesters, Nasser Rashid, said the Camp Ashraf exiles would fear for their lives under the Iraqis.

“Our concerns are heightened because of the ... unstable security circumstances in Iraq and Tehran’s considerable infiltration within Iraqi security forces,” he said.

Amnesty International has urged Iraq and the United States to treat members of the Iranian rebel group, also known as the Mujahideen e-Khalq, as “protected persons” under the Fourth Geneva Convention, and not to deport them to Iran.

The 1949 pact bans extradition or forced repatriation of people who could face torture or persecution.

The People’s Mujahideen Organization of Iran began as a leftist-Islamist opposition to the Shah of Iran but fell out with Shi’ite clerics who took power after the 1979 revolution.

Tehran has long demanded the expulsion of the rebel group, which is officially listed as a terrorist organization by the European Union and the United States.

Editing by Chris Wilson