At the start of September 2016 the Iranian Mujahadeen e-Khalq (MEK) finally left Iraq. The group had been based in the country since the 1980s when Saddam decided to host them because of their opposition to the Iranian government. They would have a controversial history in Iraq helping to suppress the 1991 uprisings that followed the Gulf War, supplying the United States with intelligence on Iran, and coming under regular attack by pro-Tehran militias.
On September 9, 2016 it was reported that the last members of Mujahadeen e-Khalq had departed Iraq. Around 280 members left Camp Liberty in Baghdad and were flown to Albania. This was part of a deal worked out between the United States and the United Nations to relocate the group. Around 2,000 others had already resettled in various European countries since the start of the year.
The MEK was formed in 1965 as a leftist opposition group to the Shah of Iran. The organization carried out a series of attacks in the country including assaults upon American military personnel and civilians leading it to be labeled as a terrorist organization by Washington. In 1979 it joined the revolution that overthrew the Shah, but then quickly came out against Ayatollah Khomeini. A crackdown by the new Iranian government led most of the group to move to France. In 1986 Paris made a deal with Tehran, and the MEK was forced to leave and moved to Iraq. Saddam welcomed them as he was in the middle of the Iran-Iraq War, and the MEK took part in the conflict.
What most Iraqis remember the group for was its support of the government during its suppression of the 1991 uprisings. Human Rights Watch interviewed dozens of survivors of the uprising and a few mentioned the MEK working with the Iraqi military to fight the rebels. One man in Tuz Kharmato, Salahaddin claimed that the MEK held the main road out of the town blocking people trying to flee the area. A woman in Kirkuk said that the MEK shelled the city. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard also crossed into Diyala (1) and attacked two of the group’s camps there. (2) For many of the Iraqi parties that came to power after the 2003 invasion this would set their image of the MEK.
In the succeeding years the group would continue its conflict with Iran and its allies within Iraq. In the 1990s Iran would occasionally carry out cross border air strikes into Iraq to bomb MEK bases. In 2001 Tehran fired SCUD missiles at its camps in Diyala. Immediately after the fall of Saddam, the Badr Brigade, the Iranian created armed wing of the Supreme Islamic Council for Revolution in Iraq moved into Diyala, which had no American troops at the time, and attempted to seize control of the province’s major cities. (3) That led to fighting with the MEK. The group then quickly made a covert relationship with the Americans to provide intelligence on Iran, and pro-Iranian groups operating within Iraq. In turn, militias aligned with Tehran would annually fire rockets at the camp the group was confined to. The last of those occurred on October 30, 2015 by the Mukhtar Army, which appeared to be a front for Kataib Hezbollah (KH). KH was formed by Iran in 2007 to carry out attacks upon U.S. forces. It is led by Abu Mahdi Muhandis. Today KH is part of the Hashd fighting against the Islamic State, and Muhandis is one of the commanders of the organization. Iraq’s Shiite parties also regularly called on the MEK to leave the country, both because of their memory of the group’s role in the 1991 uprising and because of their ties to Iran. Now it is finally out.
1. San Francisco Chronicle, “Iraqi Troops Reportedly Unable to Quell Unrest,” 3/13/91
2. Anderson, Jack, “Iranians aiding Iraqi resistance,” Oakland Tribune, 4/22/91
3. Abedin, Mahan, “The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI),” Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, October 2003
Abedin, Mahan, “The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI),” Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, October 2003
Anderson, Jack, “Iranians aiding Iraqi resistance,” Oakland Tribune, 4/22/91
Associated Press, “Shiite militia leader in Iraq says his group attacked Iranian exiles, killing 3 people,” 6/17/13
Cordesman, Anthony and Wagner, Abraham, The Lessons of Modern War: Volume II, The Iran-Iraq War, Boulder: Westview Press, 1990
Human Rights Watch, “Endless Torment The 1991 Uprising in Iraq And Its Aftermath,” 1992
Institute For The Study of War, “The Future of Iraq: A Conversation with General Raymond T. Odierno (video),” 2/16/10
Knights, Michael, “The Evolution of Iran’s Special Groups in Iraq,” CTC Sentinel, November 2010
- “Iraq’s Bekaa Valley,” Foreign Affairs, 3/16/15
Masters, Jonathan, “Mujahdeen-e-Khalq (MUK),” Council on Foreign Relations, 7/28/14
Mustafa, Hamza, “Iraqi Hezbollah Chief Warns Government,” Asharq Al-Awsat, 2/27/13
Pound, Edward, “The Iran Connection,” U.S. News & World Report, 11/22/04
Reuters, “Iranian opposition group in Iraq resettled to Albania,” 9/10/16
- “Iraqi Shi’ite militia claims attack on exiled Iranian opposition- Fars,” 10/30/15
San Francisco Chronicle, “Iraqi Troops Reportedly Unable to Quell Unrest,” 3/13/91
Woods, Kevin, Palkki, David, and Stout, Mark, The Saddam Tapes, Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, Sao Paulo, Delhi, Tokyo, Mexico City: Cambridge University Press, 2011