BAGHDAD – Under international pressure, the Iraqi government on Wednesday backed off its threat to close a refugee camp holding 3,400 Iranian exiles by the end of the month.
A spokeswoman for the exiles responded positively to elements of the plan and insisted that the U.S. and U.N. guarantee their safety. The extension of the deadline raises the likelihood of a peaceful resolution to the standoff, heading off a possible bloodbath that many international observers have feared.
The future of Camp Ashraf, home to exiles dedicated to the overthrow of the Iranian regime, has been a sticking point for Iraq's Shiite-led government, which counts Iran as an ally.
The armed People's Mujahedeen Organization of Iran first moved to the camp during the regime of Saddam Hussein, who saw the group as a convenient ally against Tehran. U.S. soldiers disarmed them during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been determined to close down the camp, located in barren terrain northeast of Baghdad about 50 miles from the Iranian border. His government considers the camp, which the exiles vigorously defend with a sophisticated public relations operation in the West, as an affront to Iraq's sovereignty.
"We don't want to hand them over to Iran. We don't want to kill them. We don't want to oppress them and we don't want to starve them. But their presence in Iraq is illegal and illegitimate," al-Maliki said during a press conference Wednesday, three days after the last U.S. soldiers left the country.
The Iraqi government had vowed to shut the camp completely by the end of December and move the residents to another location. That raised concerns that forcibly removing them would result in violence, and the United Nations has been trying to broker a deal.
The U.N. has said that at least 34 people were killed in a raid on the camp by Iraqi security forces last April.
On Wednesday, Iraqi spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the government had worked out a plan to move up to 800 of the residents to a new facility in Baghdad by the end of December. That facility is a former American military base called Camp Liberty.
Al-Dabbagh said the rest of the residents would be relocated as soon as possible in January. Once they have all moved, Camp Ashraf would be closed. He said all the camp's residents would then be relocated outside of Iraq by no later than April.
In a statement Wednesday, the head of the People's Mujahedeen Organization of Iran, Maryam Rajavi, welcomed a peaceful solution for Camp Ashraf. She said she has asked the Ashraf residents to relocate to Camp Liberty provided certain conditions are observed including U.S. and U.N. monitoring.
Al-Dabbagh said the plan calls for camp residents who are citizens of non-Iranian countries to move there eventually. But most of the residents have only Iranian citizenship, so homes in other countries would have to be found for them as well. He said no one will be forcibly sent back to Iran and that they would be treated well at Camp Liberty.
A U.S. State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said Wednesday that the process of moving the residents to a new location and eventually resettling them would take time.
"We're gratified to see that the Iraqi government is going to give it a little bit more time and that they're particularly cooperating well with the U.N. process," she said.
For all the discussion over Camp Ashraf, little is known about the inside of the camp or its residents' day-to-day lives. The Iraqi government generally does not allow journalists to visit.
The road to Camp Ashraf is heavily guarded with signs warning people against taking photographs. The Iraqi Army keeps people from getting too close, and all that's visible of the camp are towers from which troops monitor the inhabitants.
The residents complain that they don't get proper medical treatment or enough fuel in the winter. And they accuse the Iraqi government of harassing them through hundreds of loudspeakers stationed around the camp, blaring insults and threats around the clock.
Iraqi guards outside Camp Ashraf say it's the residents, not the security officials, who hurl insults with loudspeakers. They also contend that the residents regularly attack the soldiers with stones. The guards say the residents have regular access to medical care, and that the only items withheld are possible poisons and explosives.
The guards did not want to be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The U.S. State Department has said it does not know of any limits on food or water but that there were concerns over making sure the residents had enough fuel.