(photo credit: AP)
Iraq will not forcibly expel members of an Iranian opposition group living north of Baghdad, but the group is not wanted and the government has urged them to leave the country voluntarily, an Iraqi spokesman said Saturday.
The comments by government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, were an apparent bid to ease concerns that the Iraqis were planning an imminent ouster of the group, the People's Mujahedeen Organization of Iran, which has a base north of Baghdad.
Iraq's national security adviser, Mouwaffak al-Rubaie, had taken a firm stance against the group during a visit to Iran this week, saying its members had two months to return to Iran or move to a third country.
Al-Dabbagh tempered the rhetoric but said the ultimate goal was for the group to leave Iraq.
"The Iraqi government is not going to force this organization against its will (and) is not going to deport them to Iran," al-Dabbagh told Associated Press Television News.
But, he said the group "is not wanted," in Iraq and must "find a third country to move to."
Iraq's Shi'ite-led government has long sought to get rid of the People's Mujahedeen, which fought alongside Saddam Hussein's forces during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. At the same time, many Iraqi Shi'ites fled to Shi'ite-dominated Iran and fought against Iraq.
Saddam allowed the Iranian exiles to establish a base north of Baghdad in 1986 to launch raids into Iran. But US troops disarmed the fighters and confined them to Camp Ashraf after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The United States considers the group a terrorist organization but wants its members to be treated humanely and not forced back to Iran where they could face danger.
The People's Mujahedeen has expressed fear that it would be forcibly evicted after the Iraqi government took over responsibility for Camp Ashraf on Jan. 1 under a new security agreement with the United States. The US military maintains a presence at the camp.
"Iraq is not the choice for them," al-Dabbagh added. "We are going to deal with them in all humanitarian ways ... but they have to find out a third country in order to move to."
He did not elaborate or give a timeframe.
The chairman of parliament' defense committee, Abbas al-Bayati, also has given the group a two month time frame to leave the base but said members would be allowed to go to Iran, a third country or stay in Iraq as individuals not connected to the People's Mujahedeen.
It wasn't clear whether those electing to stay here individually would be allowed to do so indefinitely.
The People's Mujahedeen was founded in Iran in the 1960s and helped followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini overthrow US-backed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1979.
But the People's Mujahedeen fell out with Khomeini, and thousands of its followers are believed to have been killed, imprisoned or forced into exile.
The People's Mujahedeen was added to the US terrorist list in 1997, and to the European Union list in 2002. The group insists the designation is unfair, saying it renounced violence in 2001 and kept arms only to defend itself.