CAMP ASHRAF, Iraq — Elham Zanjani is pretty at 29. Her long eyelashes curl up perfectly and her tan skin is a creamy brown. Nine years ago she was studying at York University, engaged to another Iranian Canadian and living in her hometown of Toronto.
She left all that behind to come to Camp Ashraf in Iraq, the small base that is the home the Mujahedeen-e Khalq, or MEK, a Marxist Islamist group that is as much a cult as a political party dedicated to the overthrow of the Iranian regime.
Since the U.S. invasion toppled the MEK's onetime sponsor, Saddam Hussein, the group — to the outrage of the Iranian government — has been protected by the U.S. military inside its camp and on supply runs to Baghdad.
On New Year's Day that protection ended, and the Iraqi government, many of whose leaders were sheltered in Iran when the MEK was allied with Saddam will take control of the camp.
What could happen next has filled Zanjani and Camp Ashraf's 3,400 residents with fear.
"They can't just leave us unprotected," said Zanjani, a former MEK tank commander. "The Iranian regime is waiting outside at the door for us. They will kill us."
Last week the Iraqi government announced that the group's members would be deported — either back to Iran or to third countries. "Iraq is no option for them," the government statement said.
The statement also banned them from dealing with journalists, Iraqi politicians or any other group — Iraqi or non-Iraqi.
Iraqi officials have assured the U.S. that the MEK members' rights will be respected and that they won't be forced to return to Iran if they feel threatened. About 50 are wanted by the Iranian government in connection with assassinations and bombings.
Even those with no charges pending against them in Iran are terrified. With no countries willing to accept them en masse, the members fear the worst.
Already the Iraqi government has stopped fuel and food supplies from reaching the camp, MEK members said. In 2005 the government stopped the distribution of ration cards to the camp, forcing residents to turn to the black market, with its wildly exorbitant prices.
Those who supply the group with rice, cooking oil, sugar and other basic goods — at prices 22 times what the camp once paid — do so at risk of arrest.
"In the summer of 2006 all fuel deliveries from the camp were cut off by the oil ministry," said Abbas Qassem, the camp's logistics director. Now they sneak the oil by hiding it in septic tankers, and drivers of delivery trucks to Ashraf who are discovered are arrested.
"It was very well planned," Hossein Amini, a member of the camp's political leadership council, said of the Iraqi government's restrictions. "They wanted to put an end to us. They wanted to choke us out."
The MEK's mere existence in Iraq long has been controversial. The U.S. lists it as a terrorist organization — along with militant groups such as Lebanon's Hezbollah and Gaza's Hamas — because of its attacks on Iranian officials. The U.S., however, also has refused to expel its members from Iraq, though it did disarm them in 2003, shortly after toppling Saddam.
The group has strong support among Republicans in Congress, and many neo-conservatives in the U.S. describe them as a democratic alternative to the Iranian theocratic regime.
"It just shows how feckless our list of terrorists is," said Lawrence Wilkerson, who was former Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff and is an MEK critic.
"They're terrorists only when we consider them terrorists. They might be terrorists in everybody else's books . . . . It was a strange group of people and the leadership was extremely cruel and extremely vicious."
The group was founded in the mid-1960s to oppose the Shah of Iran and western imperialism. It was instrumental in the November 1979 occupation of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, where 52 American hostages were held for more than a year. Ultimately, the group had an ideological split with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had become Iran's supreme leader after the Shah was ousted, and its new cause became overthrowing Iran's Islamic revolution.
The group is accused of orchestrating a series of bombings inside Iran, including one attack that left the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, partially paralyzed. The group is also linked to the assassination of U.S. military personnel in Iran in the 1970s and helping Saddam quash Kurdish and Shiite uprisings.
The group denies aiding Saddam and claims it was always independent of his regime.
Now MEK members, with a leadership dominated by women, portray themselves as the organization best able to topple Iran's regime.
However, they have little support inside Iran, where they're seen as traitors for taking refuge in an enemy state and are often referred to as the cult of Rajavi, coined after the leaders of the movement, Mariam and Massoud Rajavi.
Massoud Rajavi, long the group's spiritual and political leader, disappeared after the 2003 invasion of Iraq and is believed to be dead or in hiding. His wife, Mariam Rajavi, who's president of the MEK's umbrella organization, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, commands passionate loyalty from her followers — something that officials frankly find frightening.
When Mariam Rajavi was arrested in 2003 in France, members of the group set themselves on fire in protest. Iraqi officials fear similar dramatic acts as they try to shut down the camp.
Indeed, Mariam Rajavi is a huge presence at the camp, which, with its sparkling manmade lakes and green parks, reminds one more of a college campus than a military base, dominated everywhere by her watchful eyes looking down on camp residents from larger-than-life portraits.
Rajavi's followers live an almost monastic existence. They dress in khaki green. The women and men live separately, and sexual relationships are forbidden out of concern that they'll distract from the mission to overthrow the Iranian regime.
Residents have no access to the outside world. They rarely leave camp, and their television viewing is limited to an Iranian resistance TV channel that spoofs President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and plays orchestra performances by members of the group.
A censored intranet service provides the only source of news.
Minders listen closely as one after another Ashraf resident recounted their tale of suffering under the theocratic Iranian regime.
Iranians who lived in Western nations all start their story with a variation of the same line:
"I had a great life but then I started reading about the Iranian regime and I couldn't live knowing people were being killed and children were starving in Iran," they say.
Those who lived their lives in Iran recount the terrible things that were done to their families: killings, torture and harassment under the Iranian regime.
The group keeps the memories of such atrocities alive in a camp museum where pictures and belongings of the dead are on display.
While the MEK preaches freedom and a democratic Iran, life in the camp is tightly controlled and regimented.
Everyone wakes at 5:30 a.m. for prayer. At 6 a.m. they eat breakfast and do chores around the camp and then begin their day, be it building trailers, playing music or creating videos against the Iranian regime. Every day at 6 p.m. they have self-criticism meetings where they talk about their wrong doings of the day.
Defectors describe the meetings as brainwashing through self-denunciation and worship of the Rajavis.
Arash Semitapour, a former member, now runs the Nejat or rescue society for former members of the group. He joined MEK in 2002 and was caught in Iran during a failed attempt to assassinate an Iranian police chief. Four years later he was released.
"Little by little you start to lose everything you have," he said. "People are emptied of their own ideas and filled with this ideology."
On a visit to Ashraf at lunch, female members sat together listening to the John Lennon song "Imagine," sung by a fellow MEK member.
After lunch, a young woman named Sahar played the violin and relished in the praise for her performance. Then the Iranian-born Canadian turned somber.
"I had a good life, a good education," she said. "But when I became familiar with the crimes of the Iranian regime I came here . . . We don't want our protection to be taken by the Iraqi government right now. If the Iranians see us they are going to torture us and kill us."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2008