BAGHDAD – A group of 36 Iranian opposition members were returned Wednesday to an exile camp in northern Iraq after nearly three months in Iraqi custody and despite an ongoing effort to expel them, a government spokesman said.
The men were returned to Camp Ashraf, where nearly 3,500 members of the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran have been confined since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, while the Iraqi government works to find a country other than Iran that will take them, said spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh.
The opposition group claimed the 36 were on a hunger strike during their detention and were in a weakened state when they arrived back at Camp Ashraf.
“We demand the international community help provide a place for them because they are unwanted persons,” al-Dabbagh said. “We are looking for a country that is willing to accept them.”
The 36 were detained in July following a deadly melee between the exiles and Iraqi security forces at the camp, an incident that caused an international outcry from human rights groups and raised questions about the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government’s ties to Iran.
The men were detained during two days of confrontations at the camp that left at least 11 people dead – shot, beaten or run over by military vehicles, officials have said.
The Iraqi government has said it was trying to establish a police station at Camp Ashraf and blamed the violence on the resistance by Iranian exiles.
Iraqi judicial authorities did not pursue charges against the men after their detention and ordered them freed.
The group, known as MEK, operated for years in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. The U.S. military turned over responsibility for Camp Ashraf to the Iraqis on Jan. 1.
The MEK fought alongside Saddam’s forces during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, and Saddam set up a number of bases for them – including Camp Ashraf, their last remaining foothold in Iraq, located north of Baghdad, 50 miles from the Iranian border.
After Saddam fell, U.S. troops took control of Camp Ashraf and disarmed its fighters, confining them to the 30-square-mile compound. In return, the military signed the agreement with the camp’s residents giving them protected status.
The U.S. considers MEK a terrorist organization, though one that has provided the Americans with intelligence on Iran. The European Union removed it from its terror list this year.