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Iranian exiles in Iraq balking at relocation, U.S. officials say

Efforts to relocate about 3,000 Iranian exiles in Iraq to the grounds of a former U.S. military base there appear to have stalled, Obama administration officials said Monday, raising concerns about the potential for renewed clashes between the dissidents and Iraqi security forces.

Leaders of the Mujaheddin-e Khalq, a group committed to overthrowing Iran’s Islamic government, had moved nearly two-thirds of its roughly 3,200 members to new quarters outside Baghdad but have halted further transfers for unclear reasons, State Department officials said.

The group, which the State Department lists as a terrorist organization, has existed in a kind of limbo since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Its members are unable to return to Iran and are no longer welcomed by the Iraqi government, which has vowed to close the group’s longtime headquarters at Camp Ashraf, a remote base near the border with Iran.

Warning that further delays could increase the risk of violence, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland urged MEK leaders in a statement to “resume full cooperation” immediately with the Iraqi and U.N. officials who are overseeing the transfers to the temporary quarters, on the grounds of the old Camp Liberty military base. From there, the dissidents can apply to immigrate to other countries.

“The peaceful closure of Camp Ashraf is achievable but requires continued patience and practical engagement to be realized,” Nuland said.

A senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss delicate negotiations with the group, said MEK officials had blocked further convoys from Camp Ashraf and broken off communication with the special U.N. envoy responsible for their safe relocation.

In the past, the MEK has complained of inferior living conditions and police harassment at Camp Liberty, which has been renovated and dubbed Camp Hurriya. But the senior State Department official said the delays this time appear to reflect renewed optimism among the group’s leaders that they will not be forced to entirely abandon Camp Ashraf, their home since being invited to stay in Iraq by then-President Saddam Hussein. The MEK appears to be banking on imminent political change in Iraq or a lifting of the State Department’s terrorism designation, hoping that either would open the door to preserving their base of power inside Iraq, the official said.

“We believe that they are gravely mistaken to think that any conceivable Iraqi government would in fact allow them to remain as a paramilitary organization in Iraq,” the official said.

The group issued a statement saying the halt was a response to mistreatment and broken promises by Iraqi officials. “The principal difficulty is the non-implementation of the previous commitments,” the MEK said.

A U.S. federal judge recently gave the Obama administration until October to make a decision on whether to withdraw the terrorist designation for the MEK, which was accused of killing several Americans in the 1970s. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told Congress in February that her decision would hinge in part on the group’s willingness to relocate peacefully.

In recent months, the MEK has gained support from powerful U.S. politicians from both major parties.

Joby Warrick joined the Post’s national staff in 1996. He has covered national security, intelligence and the Middle East, and currently writes about the environment.

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