WASHINGTON – The Obama administration on Monday urged Iranian dissidents at a camp in Iraq to accept a U.N.-brokered deal to move to another location to avoid a possible violent standoff with Iraqi authorities who have vowed to close the facility by year's end.
With the Iraqi government's Dec. 31 deadline to close Camp Ashraf looming, senior U.S. officials said that about 3,000 members of the People's Mujahedeen Organization of Iran should leave and go to a new, temporary site near the Baghdad airport -- likely Camp Liberty, the recently vacated former U.S. military base -- where they could be processed for resettlement in other countries.
The U.S. officials said the People's Mujahedeen had been resisting the idea but that recent signals from the group offered some signs of hope. However, they also warned the group against threatening to resist the closure of Camp Ashraf and called on the People's Mujahedeen to be "realistic" and stop using "maximalist" language of defiance.
The officials spoke during a conference call with news media and insisted their names not be used in reports about the administration's efforts. Negotiations on the move continued between the United States, United Nations and Iraq and between U.N. envoy Martin Kobler and the People's Mujahedeen.
The camp in eastern Iraq houses Iranians dedicated to the overthrow of the Iranian government. Members of the group won refuge at Ashraf decades ago during the regime of Saddam Hussein, who saw them as a convenient ally against Tehran.
Since Saddam's fall in 2003, the exiles have become an irritant to Iraq's Shiite-led government, which is trying to bolster ties with Iran. A deadly April raid on the camp by Iraqi forces drew international criticism of Baghdad's treatment of the group.
The Paris-based group's spokesman, Shahin Gobadi, said no agreement would be forthcoming unless it had received safety assurances and Camp Ashraf residents agreed, something that has not yet happened.
"The United Nations has categorically told Camp Ashraf leadership and their representatives outside Iraq that it would not sign anything with the Iraqi government without the agreement of the residents of Ashraf and the Paris leadership," Gobadi said. "Until this hour, the minimum assurances have not yet been given. Any relocation from Camp Ashraf to Camp Liberty without agreement on these minimum guarantees would be tantamount to forcible relocation and internment of the residents of Ashraf and would thus be unacceptable."
With fewer than two weeks until the deadline, the U.S. officials said it would not likely be possible to move all the residents in time even with an agreement.
But, the U.S. officials said they were hopeful that if the People's Mujahedeen agreed to the terms and began to leave Camp Ashraf for the Baghdad location, the Iraqis might extend the closure deadline as a goodwill gesture. The new facility would be under the control of the Iraqi government, unlike Camp Ashraf, but would be under U.N. supervision and residents not wanting to return to Iran or live in third countries to which they have family ties would be able to apply for U.N. refugee status, the officials said.
The People's Mujahedeen has been branded a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. -- a designation that is now under review by the State Department -- but it has been removed from similar blacklists in Europe.