Saturday, March 19, 2005

Tending an Oasis of Uprising

Tending an Oasis of Uprising
Exiled Iranians, fenced in by the U.S. Army in Iraq, harbor a dream of overthrowing Tehran. In the meantime, their yards need watering.

The Los Angeles Times
March 19, 2005
By Ashraf Khalil

CAMP ASHRAF, Iraq — Residents of this sprawling commune an hour north of Baghdad pride themselves on their self-sufficiency. They bake their own bread, purify their own water, even make their own carbonated cola.

They spend their days tending to their gardens, sprucing up their living quarters and listening to performances of John Lennon's "Imagine." And they conduct military drills while they wait for their chance to overthrow the Iranian government.

"This is heaven," Abdel Reza "Joe" Jowkar said, gesturing around a landscaped park complete with artificial waterfall.

"I'm close to the [Iranian] border, I'm ready. I'm a warrior, ready to do battle," said Jowkar, an Iranian-born 57-year-old who attended Cal Poly Pomona in the 1970s. "I'm having fun with my friends and looking to the future."

This is Camp Ashraf, home to the Mujahedin Khalq: the people's holy warriors.

The MEK, as the group is known, is one of the stranger byproducts in the U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein. When American forces overthrew Hussein's regime, they inherited this 4,000-strong group of Iranian dissidents that the dictator allowed to set up shop here in the mid-1980s.

With enough firepower for a mechanized brigade and an emphasis on self-reliance, celibacy, feminism and fervor, the MEK was a kind of Shaker army of the Iraqi flatlands. The Americans took away their weapons, threw a fence around Camp Ashraf and placed them in "protective custody."

Two years later, nobody — not even the members — seems quite sure what to do with the MEK, a U.S.-designated terrorist group. Many members say they want to stay put and continue the fight, even without weapons. But the future Iraqi government, sure to be stocked with pro-Iranian leaders, may want to kick them out.

Going home isn't an option. Allied with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the 1979 Iranian revolution, the MEK soon fell out with the Islamists and went into hiding, hounded by Iranian intelligence officials. The U.S. branded it a terrorist organization in the 1990s, in effect shutting down the group's thriving American lobbying and fund-raising machine and complicating any efforts to find a third-country home.

Now its members are in political limbo, orphans of modern Middle Eastern geopolitics.

To detractors and former members, the MEK is a dangerous, deeply paranoid cult guilty of imprisoning and brainwashing new recruits. To camp residents and their supporters, including some members of the U.S. Congress, it's the best hope for regime change in Iran and a misunderstood natural ally of the Bush administration.

"The odds are against us more than ever," said Hossein Madani, an MEK spokesman. "Of course we would welcome any cooperation with any democratic state, including the U.S."

Last week, MEK officials allowed a pair of journalists to visit Camp Ashraf, the first such visit by Western reporters since shortly after the Iraq war. The visit left the impression that if there is a definable line between commune and cult, the MEK might just be straddling it.

Starting with 14 square miles of arid land given them by Hussein, MEK members have built a bustling, idyllic sprawl of self-contained mini-villages with barracks-style living quarters, dining halls, recreational facilities and carefully maintained gardens.

Named for the first wife of MEK leader Massoud Rajavi, Camp Ashraf has its own swimming pool, library, monument to fallen comrades and a museum where visitors can view gruesome videos of Iranian regime brutality — including accused criminals having their hands cut off by a specially designed machine and alleged adulterers being buried up to the waist and slowly stoned to death.

The sense of being on the front lines in the fight against an evil foe fuels an obsessive level of commitment that MEK cadres and leaders say is vital to their cause.

After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when residents sent their children to live in Europe and North America, it was decided that Camp Ashraf was no place for distracting emotional entanglements.

Rajavi and his second wife, Maryam, now based in Paris, instituted a mandatory celibacy rule for Ashraf residents. Husbands and wives divorced each other in the name of the struggle; some couples have lived in the same camp for nearly 15 years now with no semblance of a normal marital life.

It was an extreme measure, members say, but necessary.

"Can you fight for 25 years if you have a family? No one has paid the price for freedom the way we have," female cadre Zahra Kohneshiri said.

"I knew that coming here, I could not give my heart to someone else," said Suroor Soleimanian, 24, a child of MEK members.

Almost 20 years of isolation, an overarching revolutionary cause and a persistent sense of siege have bred a discernible hive mentality at Camp Ashraf.

MEK cadres wear olive green uniforms, with matching, identically tied head scarves for the women. In talking, certain phrases and themes pop up again and again — suggesting a high level of political indoctrination.

Tehran is the "mullah regime," and the movement fighting the Iranian government has suffered "120,000 martyrs." The more than 400 people who have defected from the group in recent years are "quitters" who were too weak or selfish to "pay the price." Explaining why they chose to come to Camp Ashraf, most offer some variation on the theme of feeling guilty living abroad in comfortable exile while their people suffered back home.

Pictures of Maryam and Massoud Rajavi are everywhere in the camp, and members refer to Maryam's sayings and ideas in a manner that evokes Maoist China. Camp leaders acknowledge that regular Shiite Muslim religious observance is basically mandatory.

Direct contact with the outside world, including families, is rare. Phone calls, letters and e-mails are all routed through the central leadership.

Although the cult charge clearly rankles, MEK members also seem insulated from much of the criticism directed their way by a sort of circular logic.

Any accusations, negative articles or outside criticism are dismissed as the product of an Iranian campaign to discredit and undermine them. The complaints of some defectors that they were tricked into coming to the camp and then held against their will are the lies of those trying to get into the good graces of the Iranian intelligence services.

At the same time, the people here seem genuinely happy, committed and at ease with each other. Meals are spiced up by musical performances from MEK members.

Cadres take obvious pride in the upkeep and care of their self-contained "units," as the villages are known. Each gender-segregated unit contains several hundred residents, and the units are spread widely apart on the camp grounds.

The residents of Unit 8 have created their own park, with cobblestone paths, patches of gardens growing cabbage and other vegetables, an artificial lake with a handmade statue of a leaping dolphin and a huge chess set with 2-foot-high wooden pieces.

Unit subcommander Feredoon Salimi, an 18-year Ashraf veteran, says maintaining the homey atmosphere has become a higher priority in the last two years, with their movements restricted and their weapons confiscated.

"We could go out and enjoy nature before," Salimi said. "Instead of giving in to the circumstances, we adapt. We bring the outside world here."

Whatever their idiosyncrasies, MEK members also project a progressive streak and political ethos unusual in the world, much less the Middle East. They're ardent feminists. Women make up 30% of the fighters but hold an outsized number of political and military leadership positions. Women fight on the front lines, and female tank crews and commanders were common back when they still had tanks.

The all-male Unit 8 is led by a woman, Jila Deiham, a matronly former chemical engineer whose husband was executed in Iran for MEK activities and who lives in separate quarters on the unit grounds along with other female officers.

She theorized that the courage and persistence needed for an Iranian woman to break free of both a repressive government and a male-dominated culture bred particularly strong and brave female cadres.

"For a woman to take part in the struggle, she has to overcome more obstacles," Deiham said.

Some of the members of her unit say they had a hard time accepting orders from a woman when they first joined the MEK, but all say they now see it as a point of pride.

Mohammed Malik, a 21-year-old musician and composer, called female leadership "the masterpiece of our accomplishments."

Far from the noise, traffic jams and ambient daily dread of Baghdad, Ashraf feels like a quiet rural retreat. MEK leaders, however, accuse U.S. forces of unnecessarily turning it into a prison.

Under the disarmament agreement signed with the U.S. Army in 2003, the Americans took responsibility for the MEK's protection and security. That means severely restricting residents' movements.

A senior U.S. military commander in Baghdad said the modified house arrest was for the MEK's own good.

In addition to the threat of attack or ambush from Iranian government agents — the camp is less than an hour from the border — there's a serious possibility of attack from Iraqis, given the MEK's checkered reputation in their host country.

Even now, many Iraqis speak of the MEK with dread and suspicion. Under Hussein, the group, also known as the People's Mujahedin of Iran, was an off-limits and dangerous topic.

"If I met anyone from the PMOI, the next day someone from the intelligence services would grab me," said local journalist Daoud Janabi, an MEK supporter.

It's also accepted among many Iraqis that Hussein deployed MEK tanks to brutally suppress post-Gulf War uprisings in the Kurdish north and Shiite Muslim south.

MEK officials dismiss the charge as Iranian government propaganda, and produce letters of support from prominent Kurdish politicians. But their reputation as Hussein's henchmen lingers.

"There are some people here who would love to take a shot at them," the U.S. commander said.

While expressing their appreciation for the concerns of the Army, MEK members are beginning to chafe under the restrictions. They are permitted to make regular trips to Baghdad, escorted by Humvees, to buy supplies or have medical checkups. But most residents haven't been outside the camp in two years.

"Before the war, we used to go out shopping, go on outings to Baghdad and make visits to the holy shrines," said Faeza Saadat Mohammadi, a young second-generation cadre who speaks cockney English.

Mohammadi was sent by her parents to live in Europe as the Gulf War loomed. But around 1999, she and many others started returning, forming a new youth movement that promises to carry on the fight for years.

They may be the last generation raised to be MEK true believers, given the celibacy rules.

When discussing where the next generation of committed fighters is supposed to come from, the group's cosmopolitan, multilingual political leaders merely smile and say that the brutality and repression of the Iranian regime will ensure a steady stream of new recruits.

Earlier this week, the entire camp mobilized for a raucous celebration of Red Wednesday, a pre-Islamic holiday that precedes the Iranian New Year.

Smiling, chattering cadres gathered at makeshift bazaar stalls munching sweets, vegetable and meat pies and grilled liver. Some had traded their uniforms for outlandish get-ups, including a Native American chief, a mock Iranian television news crew in monster masks, and the impish, red-clad Haji Firuz, the holiday's Santa-like mascot.

In a field next to the bazaar, dozens of bonfires burned in a huge horseshoe and a line of laughing men linked arms and leaped over the flames in a symbolic cleansing of the past year's sorrows and worries.

The holiday is frowned upon by the Iranian theocracy as non-Islamic, adding a defiant dimension to the celebrations. Snowman-sized effigies of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani and President Mohammad Khatami were set ablaze.

The men danced in a circle, chanting: "Freedom! Freedom! The hope of all Iranians!"

It had the feel of a militaristic adult summer camp, time to blow off steam and forget their tenuous status.

The next day, they would be back to training and waiting and trying to keep themselves sharp, hoping the political winds will blow in their favor.

The incoming Iraqi government, stocked with Shiite leaders who spent years in exile in Iran, is almost certain to be unfriendly to the MEK.

Leaders of the group are already mobilizing local support to fend off possible attempts to expel them.

Just under 300 "quitters" have recently been repatriated to Iran under a general amnesty offered by Tehran to all but the top leaders, but those remaining in Camp Ashraf show no interest in returning as long as the mullahs are in power.

On some days, the memory of MEK tank columns charging more than 100 miles into Iranian territory, as they did in the waning days of the Iran-Iraq war, must seem like a distant dream.

Even if the MEK can get off the U.S. terrorist list and back in the good graces of the international community, few can imagine a scenario in which it will ever be allowed to rearm. Its tanks have already been given to the new Iraqi army.

For some, just staying where they are and keeping the faith are necessary acts of defiance.

"We have to try. We feel we're keeping the hopes of a nation alive," Salimi said. "When we lost our weapons, it was very hard, but we didn't lose hope. Weapons are not the most important aspect. What's important is the cause itself."

Times staff writer Tyler Marshall in Washington and special correspondent Nahid Siamdoust in Tehran contributed to this report.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Future uncertain for Iranian dissidents living in Iraq

Future uncertain for Iranian dissidents living in Iraq
Knight Ridder Newspapers
By Hannah Allam
Mar 18, 2005

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 and drivers obey traffic laws. The electricity is always on, and the water is always clean in this serene, self-sufficient compound.

The only thing missing is 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 treacherous region. At once sympathetic and strange, the People's Mujahedeen of Iran, or Mujahedeen Khalq, have spent the past two decades on a single-minded mission to overthrow the fundamentalist clerics of the neighboring Iranian regime.

Now, with Iraqis having just elected a pro-Iranian 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 Mujahedeen 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 Mujahedeen 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 them as an international terrorist organization, and some former members brand them as a cult.

In 1986, Saddam donated this 36 square-kilometer desert patch to the Mujahedeen, 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."

The Mujahedeen invited Knight Ridder to Ashraf for a two-day visit this month, the first time Western journalists have been allowed at the compound in nearly two years. Effectively a military base without weapons, women in olive-green uniforms and matching headscarves 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 Mujahedeen 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.

One museum is filled with rows of black-and-white photos and the belongings - a wristwatch, a bullet-riddled shirt - of the thousands of Mujahedeen supporters slain under the Iranian regime. Visitors watch a gruesome video of a couple stoned to death for alleged adultery, a prisoner whose eyes are gouged out and a crude machine slicing off the fingers of other Iranian detainees.

"On the streets of Iran, you see nothing but repression and intimidation," said Ahmad Reza Iranpoor, 19, whose brother Mohamed, 25, is also a member. "We see that, and it's not only me, but many others who are willing to leave everything behind."

People who've fled the camp, however, tell stories of being lured by promises that they would help Iranian children and restore democracy to their homeland. What they found instead, some former members said, was a lonely sect where members were intimidated into staying.

The U.S. military has investigated claims that the Mujahedeen were keeping people in Ashraf against their will, but found no solid evidence. As one senior U.S. military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, put it: "I think they've been captured by ideas and dogma, but they are not prisoners. They are reasonably physically free to leave."

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 Mujahedeen.

"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 Mujahedeen 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 Mujahedeen 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 means "happiness" in Farsi. "Women in Ashraf have so many talents. They can sing, they can play and they can fight."

In the audience were Somayeh, 24, who boasted of her skills with an assault rifle, and Farkhondeh, 28, a tank mechanic who's now in charge of electrical maintenance at the camp. There was Maryam, 39, whose toenails were ripped out during torture in an Iranian prison, and Hajar, 67, whose husband and two sons died fighting for the Mujahedeen. They were all smart, engaging women - and none has left the confines of Ashraf in two years.

The most revered figure of the group was Mahnaz Bazazi, who lost her legs during a U.S. air strike on a Mujahedeen camp during the 2003 invasion. Young women gathered around her wheelchair as she recalled how the sky turned red before the blast ripped off her flesh below the knees.

"We might not have guns, but we have our ambitions and our spirit," Bazazi said in a soft-spoken, determined voice. "Even if it's with our hands and nails, we'll overthrow the regime."

But their only stabs at the Tehran government these days are largely symbolic. Late one evening, for example, hundreds of Mujahedeen members jumped over flames as part of the "Fire Feast," celebrated on the Wednesday before the Iranian New Year. The ancient tradition of burning out the sorrows of the previous year is banned in Iran because of its pre-Islamic roots.

Members made large papier-mache dummies of Iran's ruling mullahs and cheered as they went up in flames. A crescent moon hung in the vast sky and chants of "Freedom! Iran!" rose from the revelers. They sang and danced in defiance of Islamic extremism.

The celebration usually calls for fireworks as well, members confided with sadness, but they didn't want to risk alarming their American guards this year.

Founded in the 1960s to oppose the pro-Western Shah of Iran, the Mujahedeen 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.

The group's leftist philosophy quickly put them at odds with the post-revolutionary government, and the new mission of the Mujahedeen 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 Mujahedeen 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 Saddam, 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 Saddam.

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 Mujahedeen'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 Saddam'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 Knight Ridder he was deprived of a shower for so long that fungus grew on his body.

A U.S. military official involved with the Mujahedeen's case in Iraq agreed Camp Freedom wasn't an ideal long-term solution, though he pointed out that residents have satellite TV, movies and hot meals. Finding resettlement countries would take years, he said on condition of anonymity, because of long refugee waiting lists of "people in much more dire straits than the people at Ashraf."

The only other option for Mujahedeen members 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.

Mujahedeen officials say they think that the U.S. and Iraqi policy to confine them is a mistake. "They've tied the stone and unleashed the dog," said Hossein Madani, a senior Mujahedeen spokesman at Ashraf, using an Iranian adage for making a wrong choice. "They took our weapons away. Were we the problem?"

Knight Ridder correspondent Warren P. Strobel contributed to this report.