CAMP ASHRAF, Iraq — An Iranian dissident group vowed Tuesday not to abandon its besieged camp north of Baghdad despite an Iraqi military ultimatum to pull up stakes or face an eviction that could turn bloody.
Iraqi security forces led a group of international journalists on a tour of the camp occupied by the Mujahedin-e Khalq, the first time authorities have allowed media to visit since a deadly raid on the compound last July.
Since then, the 3,000 or so remaining MEK members have been in a standoff with the Iraqi government, which has imposed a blockade on the camp and a ban on visitors in an effort to force the former militant group's relocation.
"If the Iraqi government forces us to leave the camp, then we would prefer to die here," said Hoshkand Dodgani, 49, an MEK member who's spent 23 years at the camp in Iraq. "Our main sin is our refusal to submit to the Iranian regime."
The MEK is committed to the overthrow of the cleric-led regime in neighboring Iran. In 1986, the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein allowed the MEK to set up base about 65 miles north of Baghdad, in a sprawling compound that became known as Camp Ashraf.
U.S. forces disarmed the MEK following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and until recently the residents lived there in limbo under U.S. protection from the hostile new Iranian-supported Iraqi government. Shiite Muslim leaders, many of whom lived for years in Iran, have been eager to return the dissidents to Tehran, where they could face prosecution. The Iraqi government has promised to move the group in accordance with international laws.
Journalists waiting on an Iraqi military escort for the drive to the camp Tuesday morning ran for cover as three car bombs exploded in quick succession near the International Zone, the fortified compound that houses the Iraqi government and U.S. embassy.
Iraqi police said the blasts — apparently aimed at government ministries and the nearby Iranian embassy — killed four people and wounded at least 14. An Iraqi newspaper journalist who was to take part in the MEK tour received shrapnel wounds.
Rolling through Camp Ashraf in pickup trucks, Iraqi security forces tossed pamphlets outlining the government's position, and one officer used a microphone to read out the points in broken Farsi. Reporters were watched at all times and allowed only briefly to interview MEK members.
Iraqi Army Brig. Gen. Basil Hamad, the Iraqi government's spokesman on the media tour, said the government had warned the MEK that they were to begin emptying the camp Dec. 15. However, no one was removed from the premises Tuesday and Hamad didn't say how long the group had to evacuate.
"I already told the residents of Ashraf camp that the Iraqi government is responsible for providing security for the places we want to move residents, in addition to providing for all the administrative needs under the supervision of international organizations," Hamad told reporters.
The U.S. government has been criticized for failing to do more to protect the MEK. During the Iraqi military's raid on Camp Ashraf in July, 11 MEK members died and U.S. forces at the scene did not step in, according to news accounts of the incident.
American officials said the formal end of the U.S. occupying authority in 2004 and the U.S.-Iraqi security agreement that took effect earlier this year absolves the U.S. from responsibility for the group.
"Our position is that we have no obligation, and no right under the security agreement, to provide protection to the residents of Ashraf," U.S. embassy spokesman Philip Frayne said in a statement Tuesday.
"We still expect the Iraqi government to treat them humanely, in accordance with its laws and international obligations, and not to forcibly deport them to any country where they have a fear of torture or persecution."
The MEK's old tactics earned the group a spot on the U.S. State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations. Now that they're disarmed, however, some U.S. politicians have lobbied to remove them from the list and recruit them for intelligence-gathering on Iran.
(Hammoudi is a McClatchy special correspondent)
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