PI - In Iraq, an odd refuge for Iranians. Disarmed militants pose a dilemma.
In Iraq, an odd refuge for Iranians.
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Disarmed militants pose a dilemma.
By Hannah Allam
Inquirer Foreign Staff
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. Electricity is always on and the water is always clean in this serene, self-sufficient compound.
One thing is missing: 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 perilous region. At once sympathetic and strange, the People's Mujaheddin of Iran, or Mujaheddin Khalq, have spent the last two decades on a single-minded mission to overthrow the fundamentalist clerics of Iran.
Now, with Iraqis having just elected an Iranian-leaning 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 mujaheddin 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 mujaheddin 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 the People's Mujaheddin as an international terrorist organization, and some former members brand it as a cult.
In 1986, Hussein donated this 22-square-mile patch of land to the mujaheddin, 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."
Effectively a military base without weapons, women in olive-green uniforms and matching head-scarves 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 mujaheddin 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.
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 mujaheddin.
"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 mujaheddin 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 mujaheddin 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 is Farsi for happiness. "Women in Ashraf have so many talents. They can sing, they can play and they can fight."
Founded in the 1960s to oppose the pro-Western shah of Iran, the mujaheddin 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.
Their leftist philosophy quickly put them at odds with the post-revolutionary government, and the new mission of the mujaheddin 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 mujaheddin 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 Hussein, 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 Hussein.
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 mujaheddin'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 Hussein'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 a reporter that fungus grew on his body.
The only other option for mujaheddin 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.
Contact reporter Hannah Allam at email@example.com.