- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 28, 2009

BAGHDAD | Iraq plans to move members of an Iranian opposition group from a camp north of Baghdad to remote areas elsewhere in the country as it steps up efforts to rid itself of a major source of tension with Tehran, a top government official said Friday.

Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government has long sought to get rid of members of the People’s Mujahedeen Organization of Iran, which fought alongside Saddam Hussein’s forces during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Tehran.

But the efforts have taken on new urgency as the U.S. military has turned over responsibility for the camp’s security to the Iraqis, raising concern about the residents’ future.

National Security Adviser Mouwaffak al-Rubaie gave no time frame for the move and reiterated government promises not to deport or forcibly expel the exiles. But he warned that they must leave Iraq eventually.

“The residents should understand … that their days in Iraq are numbered, and we are literally counting down,” Mr. al-Rubaie told reporters. “We will not use force … unless the residents use force against the Iraqi security forces. This whole process will be pain-free if they cooperate.”

Saddam allowed the Iranian exiles to establish their base north of Baghdad in 1986 to launch raids into Iran. At the same time, many Iraqi Shi’ites fled to Shi’ite-dominated Iran. Some of them fought on the Iranian side against Iraq. But U.S. troops disarmed the fighters and confined them to Camp Ashraf after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Mr. al-Rubaie said the group’s removal was an important step in Iraq’s efforts to improve relations with Iran.

“We want to solve all problems with our neighbors,” he said, and also pointed to the issue of separatist Kurdish rebels attacking Turkey from bases in northern Iraq.

“We want to create a network of interest between Iraq and Iran,” he said. “We don’t want to give Iran any excuse to meddle in our affairs.”

The relocation also would remove Camp Ashraf from its sensitive position about 50 miles from the border with Iran. Mr. al-Rubaie did not say where the residents would be moved.

The United States, which maintains a contingent at Camp Ashraf to monitor the situation, wants the Iranians to be treated humanely and not forced back to Iran where they could face danger.

Five U.S. representatives, including two embassy public affairs officials, were present at Friday’s briefing.

The opposition group’s political wing, the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran, had no immediate comment.

Mr. al-Rubaie said the strategy was to prod the nearly 3,500 members of the People’s Mujahedeen to leave the country peacefully by separating the vast majority of residents from a small group of about 15 to 20 militant commanders to eliminate their influence.

Mr. al-Rubaie said 984 of the 3,418 residents hold documents linked to a third country - including 63 from the United States - and the government was talking to U.S. and European ambassadors about accepting them.

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