AP Interview: UN Iraq rep urges exile cooperation

Associated Press
Martin Kobler, the top U.N. envoy to Iraq speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in the heavily protected Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, June 26, 2013. The United Nations envoy to Iraq says efforts to relocate residents of an Iranian dissident camp in Iraq are being stymied in part by lack of cooperation from the exiles themselves. Kobler told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday that the difficulties add to the challenge of finding countries willing to accept members of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq dissident group. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)
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BAGHDAD (AP) — The United Nations envoy to Iraq said Wednesday that residents of an Iranian dissident camp are denied freedom of movement by the exile group, and that efforts to relocate them outside Iraq are being stymied in part by lack of cooperation from the residents themselves.

Martin Kobler made the comments in an interview with The Associated Press in Baghdad as he prepares to leave the country at the end of his term. The U.N. has been involved in relocating members of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq dissident group to a camp on the outskirts of the Iraqi capital while it works to resettle them abroad.

The MEK is the militant wing of a Paris-based Iranian opposition movement known as the National Council of Resistance of Iran that opposes Iran's clerical regime and has carried out assassinations and bombings there. They fear persecution if sent back to Iran.

About 3,100 MEK members live in Camp Liberty, a former U.S. military base near Baghdad airport. The Iraqi government wants the group's members out of the country. So do Iranian-backed Shiite militants, who have claimed responsibility for deadly rocket strikes on the camp.

Kobler acknowledged that a major problem in resettling camp residents is a shortage of countries willing to accept them. He repeated his call for U.N. member states, including the U.S., to do more.

"We do not have enough recipient countries. ... There is also reluctance from the side of the Liberty residents to cooperate with the UNHCR," he said, referring to the U.N. refugee agency.

Albania has agreed to take 210 camp residents, but only 71 have made the move so far. Germany has also offered to take 100 residents.

Kobler also cited concerns about what he called "human rights abuses inside Camp Liberty done by the MEK themselves."

Residents are not free to move between different sections of the camp without approval, and some are denied Internet and mobile phone access by MEK officials, he said. Medical treatment outside is also often blocked by the group, he alleged.

"There are, of course, MEK residents who probably would like to disassociate themselves from the MEK," he said. "Everybody who wants to go out of the camp ... should have the chance to do so."

The NCRI, the MEK's affiliated Paris-based group, has repeatedly criticized Kobler. He retains the backing of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and was recently appointed the U.N. envoy and head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo.

NCRI spokesman Shahin Gobadi dismissed Kobler's comments as baseless and intended to "cover up the failure to provide minimum security provisions" at the camp.

"The only purpose they serve is they set the stage for more attacks," he said, insisting that residents cooperate with the U.N. Gobadi also charged that "Kobler has never been an impartial person and does not represent the values of the U.N."

Iraq gave foreign diplomats as well as journalists from AP and Iraq's state-run TV a rare glimpse of the camp in September. Diplomats on the tour described conditions as acceptable.

The MEK fought alongside Saddam Hussein's forces in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, and several thousand of its members were given sanctuary at a facility known as Camp Ashraf near the Iranian border. The MEK renounced violence in 2001 and was removed from the U.S. terrorism list last year.

Iraq's Shiite-led government, which has close ties to Iran, considers the MEK a terrorist group. Iraqi security forces launched two deadly raids since 2009 on Camp Ashraf, and in 2012 most residents were moved to Camp Liberty, which is meant to be a temporary way station.

Ali al-Moussawi, a spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said Baghdad also has concerns that MEK leaders are preventing residents from leaving.

"There is intimidation being practiced by some MEK leaders against their fellow people," al-Moussawi said. "Some MEK members are willing to leave the country, but they are being threatened by a minority preventing them."

The exiles say their new home is unsafe, and they want to return to Camp Ashraf. Several residents were killed in a Feb. 9 rocket strike on the camp, and two others died in a similar attack this month.

In another development Wednesday, Iraqi electoral officials said the Kurdish-backed al-Taakhi list won the largest single bloc of seats in provincial elections in the restive northern province of Ninevah. It claimed 11 of 39 provincial council seats up for grabs.

Ninevah borders Iraq's largely autonomous Kurdish region and has a sizable Kurdish minority. Many of the remaining seats went to Arab parties, with Iraqi parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi's Sunni Arab-backed United bloc coming in second, with eight seats.

Residents in Ninevah and neighboring Anbar province voted last week in local elections that were delayed due to security concerns.

Also Wednesday, Iraqi authorities said two policemen were killed in a bomb blast in the Ninevah provincial capital Mosul. Four others died in an explosion in a small cafe in Baghdad's Dora neighborhood, They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information to journalists.

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Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed reporting.

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