Iraq agrees to U.N.-brokered deal on fate of Iranian exiles

December 25, 2011

Iraq’s leaders agreed Sunday to a U.N.-brokered deal that could lead to the peaceful emigration of thousands of Iranian dissidents who have lived in the country under U.S. protection since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein eight years ago.

But the agreement, confirmed by Obama administration officials, has not yet been accepted by the Iranian exiles, who have repeatedly insisted on a U.S. troop presence to guard against possible attacks by Iraqis. Dozens of members of the dissident group, known as the Mujaheddin-e Khalq, have been killed by Iraqis since 2009 in assaults on the desert enclave where they have lived since being invited to Iraq by Hussein in 1986.

With the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq this month, American officials fear further bloodshed if the exiles — who are backed by numerous prominent political figures in the United States — refuse to accept the deal.

“There is mistrust, if not hatred, between the MEK and many Iraqis,” said a senior State Department official involved in negotiations over the group’s fate. “The question is, does the MEK take a deal that is less than perfect, or reject it and get nothing?”

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatically sensitive negotiations, said the accord would allow the Iranian exiles to move from their remote enclave, known as Camp Ashraf, to the grounds of Camp Liberty, the former U.S. military base near the Baghdad airport. They could then apply for emigration to other countries while under constant watch by unarmed U.N. observers. The official said the Obama administration would separately provide “robust” monitoring of the camp but would not deploy U.S. troops there, as the MEK has requested.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton praised the agreement, saying in a statement late Sunday that the United States “welcome[s] this important step toward a humane resolution to the ongoing situation at Ashraf. The UN effort has our full support.”

Shahin Ghobadi of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the MEK’s political wing, cautioned late Sunday that “we are . . . waiting to see the official document . . . [for] clarifications for the residents of Camp Ashraf. We hope that it would officially include the minimum assurances so that it would be acceptable to Ashraf residents.”

“Of course, in what has been published,” the MEK spokesman added, “the Secretary General’s Special Representative has underscored that in any event, this is a voluntary and not a forcible relocation. Ashraf residents had repeatedly emphasized that they would in no way accept forcible relocation.”

If accepted by the MEK, the deal could spell the end of a years-long standoff over the fate of the controversial group, which the State Department has officially listed as a terrorist group because of its alleged role in the slayings of six Americans in the 1970s. To many Iraqis, the MEK is a hated cult, forever tied to Hussein and his oppression. But many powerful politicians and security officials in Washington view the group’s members as freedom fighters who deserve continued U.S. protection.

U.S. and U.N. officials have been scrambling to resolve the fate of the estimated 3,400 residents of Camp Ashraf. But the officials say the MEK and its backers have complicated matters by insisting on U.S. protection. The possibility that American troops would be ordered back into Iraq to guard the dissidents is remote, at best, said a second senior State Department official involved in the talks.

“It’s not going to happen,” said the official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Lobbying campaign in U.S.

The government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which has sought for years to disband the dissident group, decreed this year that the MEK must vacate the camp by Dec. 31.

But after two turbulent years in which dozens of Ashraf residents have been killed in clashes with Iraqi security forces, the MEK insists that it will leave only on its terms, with Iraqi police kept far away and U.S. troops present to provide security. To argue its case, the dissidents turned to their powerful allies in the United States — a who’s-who list of political and security figures that have served both Republican and Democratic administrations.

A lobbying campaign launched on the MEK’s behalf has included advertisements in newspapers and on the sides of Metro buses in Washington. On Oct. 16, an “open letter” to the Obama administration appeared in newspapers bearing the names of 14 politicians and security officials, including Republicans such as former homeland security secretary Tom Ridge and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, as well as former Democratic governors Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania and Howard Dean of Vermont.

“We call on you to provide U.S. troops to protect the [U.N.] monitors and the residents,” the letter stated.

Some of these officials have previously appeared on panels sponsored by MEK-affiliated organizations, often for speaking fees in the tens of thousands of dollars. At the events and in broadcast interviews, the MEK’s backers have urged U.S. support for Camp Ashraf’s residents as fierce opponents of the Islamic clerics who rule Iran. The MEK does not disclose its funding sources, but members say much of the money comes from Iranian nationals living in the West.

A checkered history

The MEK’s critics are equally forceful. The State Department’s decision to designate the group as terrorists stemmed from a string of attacks in the 1970s, when the MEK established itself as an Islamic-Marxist group that opposed the U.S.-backed rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. After the shah was overthrown, U.S. officials say, MEK leaders supported the taking of American hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979. Later, the group split with Iran’s emerging Islamic rulers and went into exile. MEK spokesmen attribute the six American deaths to a splinter group.

The MEK was given sanctuary by Hussein and used Iraq as a platform for plotting attacks against the Iranian government. U.S. officials have asserted in documents that the opposition group — armed and equipped by Hussein — supported the Iraqi dictator in his repression of opponents, including the country’s Shiite and Kurdish populations.

After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the group gave up its weapons and received active American military protection until 2009.

Outside investigators have repeatedly accused the group of human rights abuses against its own members and recruits, including deceptive recruiting practices and repressive policies that in the past included mandatory divorce for married couples as well as beatings and torture.

“We cannot rule out the possibility that there may be some people still being held in the camp unwillingly,” said Bill Frelick, refugee program director for Human Rights Watch.

MEK officials have denied the abuse reports as a fiction perpetuated by enemies. A spokesman for the group said last week that it was the Iraqi government that has committed abuses, including a “harsh, all-around siege on Ashraf” imposed “on strict demands from the Iranian regime.”

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