By LARA JAKES, Associated Press
BAGHDAD (AP) — Lugging clothes, tables and whatever else they were allowed to bring, roughly 400 members of an Iranian exile group reluctantly moved Saturday from their camp in northwestern Iraq to a deserted military base outside the capital in what they called a show of good faith that they eventually will be allowed to leave the country peacefully.
It was the first group to move of the more than 3,300 members of the People's Mujahedeen Organization of Iran who have lived at Camp Ashraf for three decades.
They left under pressure from the Iraqi government, whose army stormed Ashraf last April in a raid that left 34 of the exiles dead.
The United Nations also wants the exiles to move to the Camp Liberty military base outside Baghdad, where they can be screened for asylum eligibility and, presumably, better protected.
The process of moving the exiles to the new location has proceeded in fits and starts over recent months. Members had not left Ashraf for years and did not want to leave their home — a miniature city with parks and a university — for an abandoned military base.
Iraqi soldiers searched the exiles for almost an entire day before they left Ashraf, and they were searched again Saturday before they were allowed into Liberty.
"This process is a humiliating and degrading treatment," said Bahzad Saffari, 50, a camp resident since 2003 who was among the first group of exiles to go. "We are very frustrated and have been going through this harassment for more than 24 hours now. The camp looks horrible — it is totally different from the photos that were provided to us."
He said exiles were barred from bringing some of their heirlooms, including photographs, microwave ovens, satellite dishes for Internet access and, in one case, a pair of therapeutic socks. None of the exiles — three-quarters of them male, including a 70-year-old man — wanted to go but agreed to be among the first tranche when Ashraf's leaders asked for volunteers, Saffari said.
Iraq's government says the exiles are in Iraq illegally and Saturday's move is a first step toward to sending them out of the country.
"Iraq inherited a number of problems and legacies left by the former regime, and they hurt Iraq and represent a source of tension in Iraq's relations with neighboring countries," Iraqi National Security Adviser Faleh al-Fayadh told reporters Saturday morning. "We reject the presence of this unwanted organization on Iraqi soil since it infringes on Iraq's sovereignty."
The People's Mujahedeen, which seeks the overthrow of Tehran's clerical rulers, has been labeled everything from a cult to a terrorist organization — although one that has provided the U.S. with intelligence on Iran. The group says it renounced violence in 2001, after carrying out bloody bombings and assassinations in Iran in the 1980s.
Also known by its Farsi name, the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, the group is the militant wing of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran. The U.S. considers it a terrorist organization although the European Union removed it from its terror list two years ago.
They were welcomed to Iraq by Saddam Hussein during the 1980s in a common fight against Iran. But since Saddam's ouster they have been an irritant to the Iraqi government which is trying to build stronger ties with Iran.
Last year, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered Ashraf to close by the end of 2011. The U.N., however, dubbed the forced removal of Ashraf residents as "ill-advised and unacceptable."
Ashraf is located in the desert near the Iranian border, about 60 miles (95 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad.
Until recently, the exiles refused to go. In December, the group's Paris-based head, Maryam Rajavi, agreed to move 400 residents to Camp Liberty in a show of goodwill as the U.N. tries to broker a compromise between the two sides. In a statement this week, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said Iraq's government has agreed to let Ashraf stay open until April 30 to give the exiles more time to move.
The U.N. mission in Iraq has been frantically working to relocate the exiles in other countries, and Ban has urged member states to take in the eligible Ashraf residents. Returning to Iran is unlikely because of their opposition to the regime.
But as of Friday, fewer than 30 have been granted asylum, said Ashraf chief spokesman Shahriar Kia.
"It is clear that for Camp Ashraf residents, there is no future inside Iraq," the U.N.'s chief envoy to Iraq, Martin Kobler, told reporters Saturday. "It is better for them if they find a relocation outside the country in a third country."
Mindful of the continued tensions between the two sides, Kobler said: "Everybody should open a new page between Camp Ashraf residents and the government of Iraq."
Camp Liberty now is being renamed Camp Hurriyah, which means "freedom" in Arabic. It sits next to Baghdad's international airport and was a sprawling U.S. Army base until the American military withdrew from Iraq in December.
The Ashraf residents fear it will be a cramped "prison" where they will be barred from moving around and lack clean water, security and free medical services.
An Associated Press photographer allowed Friday into one of the areas of Camp Liberty where the exiles will live described it as surrounded by concrete blast barriers to protect about 140 temporary buildings that each will house nine people. There is a refrigerator and an air conditioner in each building, and portable bathrooms and a dining hall on the compound that will be guarded by Iraqi army soldiers.
It's not clear what international legal protections the exiles have. After Saddam fell, the U.S. military gave the residents protected status under the Geneva Conventions, but that agreement expired in 2008 and the responsibilities were turned over to the Iraqi government.
The International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva oversees whether nations are complying with the Geneva treaties, and repeatedly has urged Iraq to treat the Ashraf residents with dignity. Exiles who are eligible for asylum are considered refugees with protected status.
Associated Press Writer Sameer N. Yacoub and Photographers Karim Kadim and Hadi Mizban contributed to this report.
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