The Obama administration "welcomes" a United Nations-led effort in Iraq to relocate a group on the State Department terrorism list, before an end-of-the-year deadline that could see heavy violence and a large humanitarian disaster unfold, senior administration officials said Monday.
The Iraqi government has said it will close Camp Ashraf – the home of the Iranian opposition group Mujahedin-e Khalq, or MEK – by December 31, without offering clear assurances the refugees will be protected against attacks by Iraqi forces, or reprisals from neighboring Iran. MEK has been on the U.S. terrorism list since 1997 because of the killing of six Americans in Iran in the 1970s, and an attempted attack against the Iranian mission to the United Nations in 1992.
The administration is supporting a plan led by Ambassador Martin Kobler, the U.N. special representative to Iraq, that would allow for a peaceful transfer of the approximately 3,400 residents of Camp Ashraf to a new facility in Iraq, one official said. The plan would also work to repatriate MEK members to Iran who go "voluntarily," or resettle to third countries under the auspices of the U.N., the official said.
"The good news here is that in the past two weeks, Ambassador Kobler and the Iraqi government have made significant progress on this plan," the official told reporter at a briefing. That official and another senior administration official declined to be named due to the sensitivity of ongoing negotiations between the U.N., the Iraqi government, and the MEK.
Under the plan being negotiated, a single "temporary relocation" facility for people now at Camp Ashraf would be established near the Baghdad International Airport, the official said, with that location in "an accessible, not inaccessible part of the country."
The plan would be administered by the Iraqi government. The U.N. high commissioner for refugees would process the MEK residents for refugee status, with the U.N. monitoring the entire process from beginning to end. The relocation facility would remain open until all residents are eventually relocated the official said.
"It will not in effect be an MEK-run facility, this is an Iraqi facility," the official said, while stressing there would be U.N. monitors present to assure the facility does "not exist in the dark."
A second administration official described the facility as one with a good deal of "infrastructure," and at a site that is "well known" to the United States. Neither official would confirm or deny whether the proposed facility is a former U.S. military base that was handed over to the Iraqi government when U.S. forces withdrew from the country.
Camp Ashraf was established in 1986 after Saddam Hussein invited members of the MEK to relocate to Iraq in an effort to undermine the Iranian government, which was at war with Iraq.
Up until "recent days," the administration official said the MEK had not engaged in a meaningful way with the government of Iraq and the U.N. in order to devise a way forward for the closure of Camp Ashraf.
"The Iraqi government has been constructive, and if they keep working with Ambassador Kolber as they have, that’s quite good," the first official said. "The MEK having just recently engaged, needs to get in all the way in a constructive fashion," the official said adding the United States continues to support Kolber’s efforts.
If the plan is implemented, the United States and Europe "will have to do whatever we can do within our laws to look at individuals whom the (U.N. high commissioner for refugees) has made eligible for refugee status, and we will have to consider what we can do to take them," working within U.S. immigration laws, the official said. That aspect of the plan will be tough to reconcile as the United States has been unable to definitively determine the entire makeup of Camp Ashraf, saying some residents are not MEK members, but probably came to the camp under different circumstances.
The official noted that although MEK is on the U.S. terrorist list, "we can look at individual refugee cases on an individual basis," as a matter of U.S. law.
The State Department is in the process of determining whether to remove MEK from the terror list. When asked for an update to that decision, both administration officials would only describe the process as "ongoing."
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has close ties to Iran, has opposed MEK’s presence in Iraq.
MEK has said Iraqi forces staged multiple attacks on Camp Ashraf earlier this year, killing nearly 50 people. Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, described the attack as a "massacre."
Since 2004, the United States has considered the residents of Camp Ashraf "noncombatants" and "protected persons" under the Geneva Conventions. A United Nations commission on refugees has described those at Camp Ashraf as "formal asylum seekers" against persecution by the regime in Iran.
U.S. forces had handed security of Camp Ashraf to the Iraqi government before the departure of U.S. forces from Iraq last week.
By Jamie Crawford