U.S. warns of ‘dangerous’ confrontation as Iranian exiles balk at moving from Iraqi base
By Joby Warrick,
State Department officials warned Friday of the potential for renewed violence between Iraqis and an Iranian dissident group living north of Baghdad, citing stalled efforts to relocate the Iranians to a new, temporary home.
Leaders of the Mujaheddin-e Khalq, or MEK, have refused since early May to allow additional convoys to travel from the group’s current Iraqi headquarters, dubbed Camp Ashraf, to a new facility on the grounds of a former U.S. military base near Baghdad, the officials said.
U.S. officials have been encouraging the move as part of a negotiated plan to end a standoff with Iraqi authorities, who contend that the group’s members are in the country illegally. MEK officials, however, have complained about poor conditions at the new camp, ranging from inadequate electricity to poisonous snakes.
While acknowledging logistical problems at the new base, State Department officials on Friday issued an unusual appeal to MEK leaders to end the standoff before a July 20 deadline set by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
“It is past time for the MEK to recognize that Ashraf is not going to remain an MEK base in Iraq,” Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, told reporters. “The Iraqi government is committed to closing it, and any plan to wait out the government in the hope that something will change is irresponsible and dangerous.”
MEK officials blame Iraq for the stalemate. After more than two-thirds of Ashraf’s residents moved to the new camp, Iraqis harassed MEK members and deprived them of necessities, a spokesman, Shahin Gobadi, said in an e-mail.
The Iraqi government “aims to make life so intolerable for the residents to coerce them into surrendering to the Iranian regime,” Gobadi said.
The Obama administration has joined U.N. officials in seeking to facilitate the removal of about 3,200 MEK members from Camp Ashraf in what State Department officials say is an effort to prevent a humanitarian crisis. The camp, which was under U.S. protection after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime, has been attacked twice by Iraqi security forces in clashes that left several MEK members dead.
The State Department has officially designated the MEK as a terrorist organization. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is under court order to decide whether to lift the designation by Oct. 1, and she has publicly linked her decision to the MEK’s willingness to complete the move from Ashraf.
Benjamin said MEK leaders appear to falsely believe that the court order compels the State Department to remove the terrorist designation and that they thus perhaps have an opening for retaining their claim on Ashraf. “That conclusion is quite plainly wrong,” he said.
State Department officials acknowledged hearing from MEK supporters — including many powerful U.S. politicians and former national security officials — on the issue but said no amount of outside pressure would sway the department’s decision.
“Any decision, one way or the other, will be made entirely on the merits,” Benjamin said.
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