Fears grow for exiled Marxists in Camp Ashraf

09 December 2010

by Gerald Butt, Middle East Correspondent

CONCERN is growing for the well-being of about 3400 Iranian exiles, who have spent a quarter of a century in a refugee camp in Iraq. The residents of Camp Ashraf, 40 miles north of Baghdad, are members of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MKO).

This is a Marxist-Islamist organisation that co-operated with supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini in toppling the Shah’s regime in 1979. But the group then fell out with and fought the government of the Islamic republic that came to power, and was later expelled. The MKO is classified by the United States as a terrorist organisation.

The residents of the camp now find themselves trapped. They are hated, not only by the regime in Tehran, but also by many Iranians, because they co-operated with Saddam Hussein’s forces in the war against Iran. By the same token, they are despised by the current Iranian-backed government in Baghdad for having co-operated with the former Iraqi dictator.

From 2003 to 2009, Camp Ashraf — today a small town with shops and other amenities — was under US military control. But now the Iraqi army is in charge. The MKO has accused the government of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad of having bowed to Iranian demands to lay siege to the camp. It has also accused Iraqi troops of committing acts of violence against the refugees — accusations that have been denied.

None the less, there appears to be growing evidence of deteriorating conditions in the camp. Amnesty International says that, because of inadequate services in the hospital next to the camp, some residents have sought treatment in specialised facilities elsewhere in Iraq.

But the human-rights organisa­tion Amnesty also says that it has “re­ceived reports confirming that patients with appointments in hospitals in Baghdad could not attend their appointments because the Iraqi forces apparently refused to allow others to accompany them, including interpreters”.


Amnesty says that “ill-treatment of patients by the Iraqi forces has also been reported. Soldiers have forcibly removed patients from hospital or entered patients’ rooms against their will, in some cases verbally harassing them. In one case, a soldier allegedly beat a patient who had just had surgery, causing him to go into a seizure.”

The MKO has a history of violence against Americans. It supported the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979, and had killed several US military and civilian officials in the 1970s. But the group developed a significant following in Congress for its opposition to Islamic rule in Tehran, and it now insists that it has renounced the armed struggle.

Some members of Congress and the European Parliament are calling on the Obama administration to remove the MKO from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organisations, and to take steps to end the predicament that the Camp Ashraf refugees face.

The MKO says that if the Iraqi government turned the refugees over to the Iranian authorities, they would face torture and possible death.

Christians murdered in Baghdad. It is reported that a gunman shot and killed an elderly Christian couple in their home last Sunday evening — the latest in a series of violent attacks against Christians (News, 5 November). The shooting is said to have taken place in Baladiyat, a predominantly Shiite area in eastern Baghdad.

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