UN, US protection urged for Iranian exiles in Iraq

GENEVA, March 9 (Reuters) – The United Nations and the United States should take on protection of a community of Iranian exiles in Iraq that the Iraqi government wants dispersed, human rights advocates said on Wednesday.

They told a meeting on the sidelines of a session of the U.N. Human Rights Council that quick action was essential to head off a tragedy which might lead to the death of many residents of the exiles’ Camp Ashraf north of Baghdad.

“Both the United States and the U.N. must resume protecting these defenceless people. This is a matter of morality, duty and honour,” said Paddy Ashdown, former U.N. chief in Bosnia and one-time leader of Britain’s Liberal Democratic Party.

“A tragedy is possible unless we act now.”

Former Algerian prime minister Sid Ahmed Ghozali said the roughly 3,400 people in the 25-year-old settlement were fully entitled to protection under international humanitarian law and Iraq should halt its attempts to dislodge them.

People who have visited the camp say it is like a small town with schools, shops and sporting amenities all built by the exiles, who are largely members of the People’s Mujahideen Organisation of Iran (PMOI).

The group, formally designated as a terrorist movement by both the United States, opposes the Islamic government of Iran but is accused by the Iraqi government of having helped former dictator Saddam Hussein put down his opponents.

The exiles, whose National Council of Resistance political wing is based in Paris, deny this.

At Wednesday’s meeting at the U.N.’s European headquarters in Geneva, U.N. rights official Jean Ziegler praised the PMOI as “a national liberation movement fighting for universal values.”

After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the United States assigned troops to guard the camp in return for the residents handing over their weapons. But in 2009 it transferred this responsibility to the Iraqi government.

The Iranian exiles, denounced as terrorists also by Tehran, say the camp has been subject to attacks by Iraqi soldiers, including one in 2009 when seven exiles were killed. The Iraqi government says the troops were attacked by the exiles.

Camp residents say they are being subjected to psychological torture through 210 loudspeakers blaring abuse and threats around the clock from the Iraqi government, which has a special committee on closing down Ashraf.

Former senior figures in recent U.S. administrations have also spoken out recently in favour of the group, arguing that they should be taken off the “terrorist” list.

The PMOI began as a leftist Islamic group opposed to Iran’s late Shah, but fell out with Shi’ite clerics who took power after the 1979 revolution in Iran. Later it carried out attacks on targets in the country. (Editing by Stephanie Nebehay and Elizabeth Fullerton)

By Robert Evans

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