CAMP ASHRAF, Iraq—Iraq has an oasis where fountains gurgle over pebbles and flowers blossom in lush gardens.
The hospital is spotless and fully stocked, schools offer violin lessons and drivers obey traffic laws. The electricity is always on, and the water is always clean in this serene, self-sufficient compound.
The only thing missing is an exit.
This never-never land is Camp Ashraf, home to nearly 4,000 Iranian militants on windswept plains in the heart of Iraq's most treacherous region. At once sympathetic and strange, the People's Mujahedeen of Iran, or Mujahedeen Khalq, have spent the past two decades on a single-minded mission to overthrow the fundamentalist clerics of the neighboring Iranian regime.
Now, with Iraqis having just elected a pro-Iranian government, no one, from the Bush administration to human rights workers, quite knows what to do with these foreign dissidents and their pretty camp in the middle of a war zone.
The Mujahedeen once had tanks and guns, but were forced to surrender their armaments after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. They had a protector in Saddam Hussein, who gave them land and sold them millions of dollars in weapons, but now he's gone. They had recruits lining up to join the cause, but now the ranks are thinning as defectors ponder a risky return to Iran.
All the Mujahedeen have left in Iraq is their idyllic refuge at Ashraf, north of Baghdad, and even that has become a prison-like place overseen by the U.S. military. The State Department lists them as an international terrorist organization, and some former members brand them as a cult.
In 1986, Saddam donated this 36 square-kilometer desert patch to the Mujahedeen, who turned it into a sophisticated base town dotted with replicas of landmarks found in Iran. When they weren't busy planning attacks and gathering intelligence on the Iranian regime, fighters added a library, a mosque, swimming pools and ornate sculpture.
"We built everything with our own hands," said Pari Bakhsha'i, 43, the matronly administrator of Ashraf. "We love this place so much. We have sweet and bitter memories here."
The Mujahedeen invited Knight Ridder to Ashraf for a two-day visit this month, the first time Western journalists have been allowed at the compound in nearly two years. Effectively a military base without weapons, women in olive-green uniforms and matching headscarves still tool around the city in Toyota trucks. But they yearn for the old days, when they drove tanks and fired Katyusha rockets.
Joining the Mujahedeen requires a total relinquishing of mind and body to an ideology most often described as Marxist-Islamist. Men and women live in separate, self-contained units where everything, from ice cream to "Ashraf Cola," is made on site. Marriages aren't allowed and troops are encouraged to purge sexual thoughts by writing them out on paper. E-mail, letters, movies and news are all filtered by camp commanders—mostly women—before reaching the units.
Many residents sought sanctuary in Ashraf after relatives were tortured or executed in Iranian prisons. Martyrs are remembered in two macabre museums and a well-kept cemetery, where 200 men and women are buried, including some killed in U.S. air strikes.
One museum is filled with rows of black-and-white photos and the belongings—a wristwatch, a bullet-riddled shirt—of the thousands of Mujahedeen supporters slain under the Iranian regime. Visitors watch a gruesome video of a couple stoned to death for alleged adultery, a prisoner whose eyes are gouged out and a crude machine slicing off the fingers of other Iranian detainees.
"On the streets of Iran, you see nothing but repression and intimidation," said Ahmad Reza Iranpoor, 19, whose brother Mohamed, 25, is also a member. "We see that, and it's not only me, but many others who are willing to leave everything behind."
People who've fled the camp, however, tell stories of being lured by promises that they would help Iranian children and restore democracy to their homeland. What they found instead, some former members said, was a lonely sect where members were intimidated into staying.
The U.S. military has investigated claims that the Mujahedeen were keeping people in Ashraf against their will, but found no solid evidence. As one senior U.S. military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, put it: "I think they've been captured by ideas and dogma, but they are not prisoners. They are reasonably physically free to leave."
At Ashraf, defectors are called "quitters," traitors who couldn't handle the sacrifice and, as a result, played into the hands of Iranian intelligence agents. Their stories are made up, said Mahnaz Hashemi, 22, a pretty, freckled woman who left behind shopping malls and Saturday night dates when she moved from Tampa, Fla., to Iraq in 1998.
Hashemi had just been accepted to college with dreams of becoming a meteorologist when news of atrocities in her native Iran pulled her toward the Mujahedeen.
"I told myself, `God didn't make you to go live in Florida,'" she said. "When I came here, I knew I was going to commit my whole life to this one goal. I didn't plan on just staying for a few months."
To counter their image as a bizarre, isolated group, the Mujahedeen run a clinic that treats impoverished local Iraqis for free. They sponsor women's rights conferences and invite the culture-starved Iraqi intelligentsia to performances by the group's musicians, poets and theater group. The road from Baghdad to Ashraf is dangerous, so the Mujahedeen offer late-night visitors tidy guesthouses filled with trays of nuts, fruit and homemade cookies.
On one recent night, 300 women from Unit 6 gathered for dinner in a cafeteria where artists practiced for an Iranian New Year gala. The all-female orchestra tuned up with the theme song to the film "The Godfather," followed by a purple-clad singer who stirred the crowd with folk tunes from Iran.
"See?" whispered one young woman called Khojasteh, whose name means "happiness" in Farsi. "Women in Ashraf have so many talents. They can sing, they can play and they can fight."
In the audience were Somayeh, 24, who boasted of her skills with an assault rifle, and Farkhondeh, 28, a tank mechanic who's now in charge of electrical maintenance at the camp. There was Maryam, 39, whose toenails were ripped out during torture in an Iranian prison, and Hajar, 67, whose husband and two sons died fighting for the Mujahedeen. They were all smart, engaging women—and none has left the confines of Ashraf in two years.
The most revered figure of the group was Mahnaz Bazazi, who lost her legs during a U.S. air strike on a Mujahedeen camp during the 2003 invasion. Young women gathered around her wheelchair as she recalled how the sky turned red before the blast ripped off her flesh below the knees.
"We might not have guns, but we have our ambitions and our spirit," Bazazi said in a soft-spoken, determined voice. "Even if it's with our hands and nails, we'll overthrow the regime."
But their only stabs at the Tehran government these days are largely symbolic. Late one evening, for example, hundreds of Mujahedeen members jumped over flames as part of the "Fire Feast," celebrated on the Wednesday before the Iranian New Year. The ancient tradition of burning out the sorrows of the previous year is banned in Iran because of its pre-Islamic roots.
Members made large papier-mache dummies of Iran's ruling mullahs and cheered as they went up in flames. A crescent moon hung in the vast sky and chants of "Freedom! Iran!" rose from the revelers. They sang and danced in defiance of Islamic extremism.
The celebration usually calls for fireworks as well, members confided with sadness, but they didn't want to risk alarming their American guards this year.
Founded in the 1960s to oppose the pro-Western Shah of Iran, the Mujahedeen participated in the Islamic revolution of 1979. They were instrumental in the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, where 52 Americans were held hostage for more than a year.
The group's leftist philosophy quickly put them at odds with the post-revolutionary government, and the new mission of the Mujahedeen became overthrowing the mullahs. Their attacks have spanned decades and have wiped out dozens of top regime officials. Iran's current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, is partially paralyzed as a result of a 1981 assassination attempt for which the Mujahedeen claimed responsibility.
They were eventually driven from Iran and settled in Paris, where the group's iconic leader, Maryam Rajavi, still lives. They then received refuge from Saddam, who used them in the Iran-Iraq war and, by many accounts, later to crush Shiite Muslim and Kurdish uprisings. Iraqis regarded them warily, noting the irony of a force opposing dictatorship while being under the protection of Saddam.
The CIA, FBI and international intelligence agencies all descended on Ashraf after the U.S. invasion to screen members for terrorist leanings. Soldiers found cyanide tablets that senior members planned to use if captured by Iranian security forces. The Mujahedeen's radio station, their most valuable link to supporters in Iran, was shuttered. American explosives contractors are still blowing up more than 20,000 tons of weapons and ammunition seized nearly two years ago.
In Washington, senior officials of the Bush administration initially sought to use the group against Iran after Saddam's ouster and, with the president's keen focus on Tehran's nuclear weapons program, that idea still hasn't been ruled out. Of the residents at Ashraf, one senior State Department official estimated, perhaps 200 might be useful as U.S. intelligence assets.
For now, the militants can stay at Ashraf under a United Nations "protected persons" status, though it means members are virtually prisoners of the U.S. military.
Militants seeking to escape the highly disciplined, claustrophobic life of the compound can cross into a dismal, adjacent holding facility known as Camp Freedom, where some have languished in tents for nearly two years because no third country has agreed to offer them asylum. Human rights workers have started looking into conditions at the U.S.-run camp, where one defector told Knight Ridder he was deprived of a shower for so long that fungus grew on his body.
A U.S. military official involved with the Mujahedeen's case in Iraq agreed Camp Freedom wasn't an ideal long-term solution, though he pointed out that residents have satellite TV, movies and hot meals. Finding resettlement countries would take years, he said on condition of anonymity, because of long refugee waiting lists of "people in much more dire straits than the people at Ashraf."
The only other option for Mujahedeen members is returning to Iran, a route quietly encouraged by the U.S. State Department and the Iraqi government in hopes that mass defections will crumble the leadership of Ashraf, empty the camp and solve the problem. But fewer than 300 have taken that gamble, fearing revenge from the mullahs they spent years plotting against.
Mujahedeen officials say they think that the U.S. and Iraqi policy to confine them is a mistake. "They've tied the stone and unleashed the dog," said Hossein Madani, a senior Mujahedeen spokesman at Ashraf, using an Iranian adage for making a wrong choice. "They took our weapons away. Were we the problem?"
(Knight Ridder correspondent Warren P. Strobel contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-MEK
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050318 USIRAQ MEK