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Analysis: Dissident city in Iraq in danger

The entrance gate of Ashraf camp.
by Stefan Nicola
Berlin, April 21, 2009
A group of German lawmakers has warned of a humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq if Baghdad closes down a camp where some 3,500 Iranian dissidents have been living for the past two decades.

"We are very concerned about the situation of the people in Ashraf," Hermann-Josef Scharf, a lawmaker from German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives, said Monday in Berlin. "What currently happens there is a precursor to a humanitarian catastrophe" aimed at "destroying the Iranian opposition."

Camp Ashraf, an enclave northeast of Baghdad, for the past 23 years has been a safe haven for some 3,500 members of the People's Mujahedin of Iran, an Iranian opposition group Tehran says is composed of terrorists.

U.S. troops provided security for Ashraf residents, who were designated as "protected persons" under the Geneva Conventions, from 2003 until the end of 2008. Before that, they enjoyed a similar status under Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein because they fought alongside Iraqi forces in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

The Iraqi military took over protection of Ashraf on Jan. 1, and the German lawmakers, European parliamentarians and several international aid groups have in the past weeks warned of what they say is a worsening humanitarian situation there.

Amnesty International said Monday it had written to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, urging him to clarify the government's plans regarding Ashraf and ensure the human rights of its residents.

Baghdad recently announced that it wants to close the camp and expel its residents to Iran or a third country. If forced to return to Iran, the PMOI members would face abuse, imprisonment and death sentences.

But while the people in Ashraf want to stay where they are, the Iranian opposition says Iraqi authorities are making life nearly intolerable.

Access to the camp has been restricted, with fuel, food and medicine getting in with significant delays, a Dutch lawmaker warned last week.

German lawmakers and human rights experts have in the past weeks tried to travel there but were denied visas.

"They are letting no one in recently, and that worries me," said Christian Zimmermann, a Berlin-based human rights activist.

The Iranian opposition says Iraqi authorities are clamping down on the camp because of political pressure from Tehran. Ashraf has long been a thorn in the side of the Iranian regime because it harbors its most determined opposition group.

The PMOI was founded in 1965 in opposition to the shah but was squashed by the mullah regime that took power in 1979. It is led by exiled opposition figure Maryam Rajavi and is considered a terrorist organization by the United States. After a long legal battle, it was removed from the European Union's terrorist list in January.

When Baghdad took over responsibility for the camp earlier this year, Tehran began to call for its closure. Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei at a recent meeting with Maliki urged him to close down the camp, knowing that there are several Iraqi politicians with ties to Iran who back this plan.

Iraqi national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie says the PMOI members in Ashraf are criminals who should be expelled, arguing they are trying to influence politics in Iraq.

Other politicians, including President Jalal Talabani, have in the past said Ashraf has a right to remain in Iraq, and Washington has reportedly received guarantees that PMOI members would not be expelled to countries where they could face persecution.

But Scharf and his colleagues remain concerned.

"The fact that they are sealing off Ashraf even to us parliamentarians means that not Ashraf has something to hide, but probably the Iraqis," said Anette Huebinger, another lawmaker of Merkel's conservatives.

Huebinger and Scharf are among a group of seven German lawmakers who have signed a petition urging Berlin to engage in diplomacy with Baghdad to make sure that the residents of Ashraf are protected.

They also said they would like to see the U.S. military retake control of the camp, but Washington is likely to keep out as long as possible.

This won't please Zahra Rafii, an Iranian expatriate living in Darmstadt in western Germany.

Rafii visited Ashraf in 2003, right after the U.S.-led invasion, to visit her daughter, niece and nephew. They're still there, and the current situation in Ashraf is worrying her.

"As a mother, I can't sleep well," she said Monday in Berlin. "My daughter could have a nice life everywhere, but she has decided for this stony path, to live in Ashraf, because she wants a free, democratic Iran."

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