“We’re very happy that we’ve come this far without a blood bath,” said a senior administration official who is privy to internal deliberations over the issue. He and others spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the delicate diplomacy involved in resolving the MEK’s fate. “Now we have to move forward on resettlement.”
Administration officials said the decision to lift the terrorist designation was based on the recent history of the MEK, which renounced violence and turned over its weapons to U.S. forces after waging a decades-long armed campaign against both the current Iranian government and its predecessor, led by the U.S.-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. But the decision also hinged in part on the MEK’s decision to leave its longtime home in Iraq, a former military base known as Camp Ashraf near the border with Iran.
Iraq had insisted on closing the base — by force, if necessary. Iraqi police had clashed repeatedly with MEK members at the facility in recent years, killing dozens of them.
Under a U.N.-brokered arrangement, the group was offered temporary quarters in Baghdad, on the grounds of the former U.S. military base known as Camp Liberty.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in congressional testimony in February that the MEK’s willingness to peacefully depart Camp Ashraf would be a “key factor” in the decision on the group’s terrorist listing.
Nearly half of Camp Ashraf’s residents had completed the move in early summer when the agreement collapsed, with MEK officials decrying alleged mistreatment by Iraqis and what they described as intolerable living conditions at the new camp.
A tense stalemate followed, as the MEK balked at completing the move in defiance of an Iraqi deadline for evicting the last exiles from Camp Ashraf. MEK supporters hired dozens of high-ranking former U.S. government officials and politicians to lobby the Obama administration on the group’s behalf, demanding that Washington back the MEK in its struggles with Iraq.
A breakthrough came last week when the MEK, warned that it could lose its battle over the U.S. terrorist listing, relented and agreed to allow the last major convoys of dissidents to depart for new homes in Baghdad. Even then, as MEK members climbed into vans and buses, disputes erupted over baggage searches and the treatment of disabled dissidents, the senior U.S. official said.
“Friday and Saturday were all-nighters for a lot of our people, as well as the U.N. folks,” the official said. Iraqi officials agreed to allow about 200 MEK members to remain at Camp Ashraf for a few weeks to oversee property transfers, but “this effectively means the end of Camp Ashraf,” he said.
Until last week, Camp Ashraf had been the MEK’s home since the group was invited to Iraq by then-President Saddam Hussein, who saw the dissidents as useful allies in his war against Iran. Hussein provided arms and housing for the MEK and sometimes used its members, U.S. officials say, as muscle for his repressive policies at home. The MEK’s reputation as Hussein’s allies ensured their pariah status after U.S. troops overthrew the dictator in 2003.