Baghdad: Several hundred Iranian exiles arrived at a UN-approved site near Baghdad on Saturday, a first step in a process that aims to see them resettled outside Iraq, where they have been based for decades.
The move is part of a December 25 deal between the UN and Iraq, reached after extensive talks, under which around 3,400 Iranians opposed to the regime in Tehran are to move from their long-time base, Camp Ashraf, to a new location called Camp Liberty, with the aim of eventually moving them to other countries.
"We are arriving at the gate to (Camp) Liberty," Behzad Saffari, the legal adviser for residents of Camp Ashraf said on telephone around 6 AM (local time).
The 397 exiles had departed Camp Ashraf in 18 buses beginning about 1:30 AM on Saturday, escorted by Iraqi security forces, Saffari said.
He said that the buses were being checked with scanners at the gate to Camp Liberty, near the Baghdad airport.
The departing exiles and their belongings were also searched prior to their departure in a lengthy process that began around 2 PM on Friday, and continued until 1:15 AM on Saturday, Saffari said.
Iraq had previously aimed to close Camp Ashraf in Diyala province, which now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein allowed the People's Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran (PMOI) to set up during his 1980-88 war with Iran, by the end of last year.
But Iraqi premier Nuri al-Maliki said on December 21 that his government had agreed to extend the deadline to April, and signed the deal with the UN on moving the exiles a few days later.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran, an umbrella group that includes the PMOI, has complained about the conditions at Camp Liberty, and called for Iraqi police to be withdrawn from the camp before additional exiles move there.
The left-wing PMOI was founded in 1960s to oppose the shah of Iran, but took up arms against Iran's new clerical rulers after the Islamic revolution in 1979. It said in 2001 that it had renounced violence.
Spokesman Shahriar Kia has said that the PMOI is "seeking a democratic change in Iran."
The US State Department has blacklisted the PMOI as a terrorist organisation since 1997, and says that members of the group carried out a large number of attacks over several decades against Iranian targets, and also against Americans.
The PMOI strongly opposes the terrorist designation and is seeking to have it lifted in the United States as it has been in Europe.
In a May 2005 report, Human Rights Watch cited former PMOI members as having "reported abuses ranging from detention and persecution of ordinary members wishing to leave the organisation, to lengthy solitary confinements, severe beatings, and torture of dissident members."