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The Conflict in Iraq | COLUMN ONE

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.

March 19, 2005|Ashraf Khalil | Times Staff Writer

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.

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