Inter Press Service
The Barack Obama administration and the United Nations are struggling to convince the leadership of the Mujaheddin-e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian opposition group with cult-like characteristics, to vacate a camp in Iraq and allow residents to move to another location in the country or risk the lives of as many as 3,200 people.
U.S. officials fear that unless MEK leader Maryam Rajavi gives her approval, there will be a bloodbath at Camp Ashraf, an MEK base 56 kilometres north of Baghdad that Iraqi leaders insist must close by Dec. 31. There are particular concerns that MEK members will clash with Iraqi security forces or commit mass suicide.
An Obama administration official who spoke to IPS on condition that he not be named said, "The Iraqi government and U.N. ambassador (to Iraq) Martin Kobler have made significant progress recently" but that MEK leaders have still not signed off on the plan, which would transfer residents in stages to Camp Liberty, a former U.S. military base near Baghdad airport.
There, officials from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) would be able to interview MEK members individually to determine their preferences for resettlement.
"After much regrettable stalling, the MEK finally seems ready to engage seriously," the official said Monday. "This is good, but the MEK must be realistic, and time is short."
The official added that while MEK leaders have backed off from "maximalist positions" in the last 48 hours, "We're still hearing talk about martyrdom and dying."
The Obama administration has been working with the United Nations and Iraq to facilitate the transfer of the estimated 3,200 Ashraf residents. Vincent Cochetel, Washington representative for UNHCR, told IPS in September that the MEK had agreed to the plan through the organisation's legal counsel in London.
But Rajavi, who lives outside Paris and met with Kobler last weekend, is insisting that U.S. or U.N. troops accompany the Ashraf residents, according to a source with knowledge of the meeting who spoke on condition of anonymity. Iraq has agreed to U.N. monitoring of the transfer but not the presence of foreign troops.
The United States last weekend withdrew the last of its forces from Iraq under the terms of a status of forces agreement and is not about to send them back for this purpose.
Human rights organisations have urged the Obama administration to call on the Iraqi government to extend the deadline.
Sanjeev Bery, advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, told IPS in an email that the organisation "is concerned that Camp Ashraf residents are at serious risk of severe human rights violations if the Iraqi government goes ahead with its plans to force the closure of the camp by the end of this month."
The email noted that there had been several attacks on the camp by Iraqi security forces, most recently in April, which "resulted in the deaths of dozens of residents and injuries to others".
The senior administration official said Amnesty, instead, should urge the MEK to sign onto the plan "at hand and not encourage people to die".
Experts on the MEK accuse its leaders of holding its own members hostage to efforts to get the organisation removed from the U.S. State Department's list of Foreign Terrorist Organisations. The State Department has been reviewing the MEK's status for months but has tried to decouple the process from efforts to resolve the impasse over Ashraf.
MEK supporters say the group has renounced terrorism. They have mounted an elaborate campaign to be removed from the terrorist list that has included expensive full-page ads in major U.S. newspapers and paid speeches by prominent former U.S. officials.
However, Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, told IPS, "If an organisation is ordering innocent residents of a camp to commit suicide or have themselves killed if their leaders don't get the outcome they are seeking, isn't that the definition of a terrorist group?"
U.S. officials do not know for sure how many people are at Ashraf but believe they include minors and others who were tricked into going to the camp. There they were subjected to military training and mind control exercises that include cult-like devotion to Mrs. Rajavi and her husband Massoud, whose whereabouts are unknown.
The prolonged presence of the MEK at Camp Ashraf has been a major irritant for Iraqi officials since the end of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003.
A Marxist-Islamist group that helped remove the Shah of Iran but lost out in a post-revolution power struggle, the MEK found refuge in Iraq and fought on the side of Saddam's forces against Iran in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. It also helped Saddam suppress uprisings by Iraqi Shiites and Kurds following the 1991 Gulf War and carried out a series of high-profile attacks on Iranian officials during the 1990s.
The U.S. State Department put the MEK on its list of foreign terrorist organisations in 1997.
Iraqi officials have promised to give the U.N. sufficient time to process the camp members – provided they leave Ashraf.
Even if they do accept transfer, it will be difficult to resettle the residents. Several hundred camp residents have returned to Iran since 2003 through the auspices of the International Red Cross.
However, the atmosphere in Iran has darkened since disputed 2009 presidential elections and those affiliated with the MEK face imprisonment or even execution. European countries are also not eager to accept MEK members, many of whom have been subjected to brainwashing.
Taking the group off the U.S. terrorist list would not mean that members could automatically come to the United States. U.S. law forbids immigration to "those who provided material support to, or received military-type training" from any organisation that has been on the terrorist list, according to another State Department official who spoke to IPS recently on condition of anonymity.
The Obama administration has tasked Daniel Fried, a former assistant secretary of State for European affairs, with resolving the crisis. Fried's office is also responsible for resettling Guantanamo detainees.
Barbara Slavin is a correspondent with Inter Press Service.