- The Washington Times - Monday, January 23, 2012

Iranian dissidents at a camp north of Baghdad allege that the Iraqi government is preparing a “concentration camp” to which they are to be relocated under a United Nations-brokered plan.  

Camp Liberty, a former U.S. military base near the Baghdad International Airport, has been picked as a temporary home for more than 3,000 Camp Ashraf residents - former Iranian resistance fighters sheltered in Iraq since 1986.

But the camp has been reduced to a fraction of its original size and is surrounded by tall concrete walls and is monitored by surveillance cameras and police - all violations of the U.N. deal with the Iraqi government, said Shahriar Kia, a Camp Ashraf spokesman.

“This is clearly not only a concentration camp, but a prison,” he said in a telephone interview.

Radhia Achouri, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq, told The Washington Times that Camp Liberty fails to meet U.N. standards.

“The government of Iraq is yet to complete the preparation of Camp Liberty in accordance with the international humanitarian criteria specified in the [U.N. agreement],” she said in an emailed response to questions from The Times.

Ms. Achouri said Camp Ashraf residents will move to Camp Liberty only after “the U.N. is satisfied, upon verification of the camp, that these humanitarian criteria are met.”

The Iraqi government had set a Dec. 31 deadline to close Camp Ashraf. Last month, it agreed to extend the deadline to the end of April, by which time it wants all Camp Ashraf residents to leave Iraq.

In December, Martin Kobler, the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative for Iraq, struck the deal with the Iraqi government to move Camp Ashraf residents to Camp Liberty. The leadership of the resistance movement, known as the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), agreed to relocate 400 residents as a goodwill gesture.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accuses the MEK of being a terrorist group and wants to close the camp. The U.S. State Department designated the MEK as a terrorist organization in 1997, but American forces disarmed the resistance in 2003 after invading Iraq to topple dictator Saddam Hussein.

In the past couple of weeks, the Iranian exiles have reported rocket attacks on Camp Ashraf. The Iraqi government also has announced arrest warrants for 126 residents.

Mr. al-Maliki’s critics, including Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, accuse the prime minister of acting at the behest of the Shiite regime in Iran, which has pursued the resistance for decades.

“It was purely an Iranian decision to transfer [the Iranian exiles] from Camp Ashraf,” Mr. Mutlaq said in a phone interview.

“There is no reason to transport them to another location inside Iraq when we are looking to move them to other countries. It doesn’t make sense. We feel ashamed that they are suffering in our country,” he added.

Iraqi government spokesmen did not answer their phones or respond to emailed requests for comment from The Washington Times.

According to the U.N. agreement, the U.N. refugee agency will determine the refugee status of the dissidents after they are relocated to Camp Liberty in a necessary first step for their resettlement outside Iraq.

The deal potentially avoided what the exiles and their supporters feared would be a massacre by Iraqi army and police if they tried to close the camp by force.

Mr. Kia said Camp Ashraf residents have not been permitted to visit Camp Liberty but have received information on conditions at the site from sources inside Iran.

While the Iraqi government is solely responsible for the safety and security of the Iranian dissidents, it has agreed to allow the United Nations to station monitors at Camp Liberty.

U.N. officials have been visiting Camp Liberty regularly. They were accompanied by U.S. Embassy officials on a recent visit.

The Obama administration supports the U.N.-led effort.

“We are closely engaged with the U.N. and the Iraqi government, which are working to ensure that conditions at former Camp Liberty are consistent with international humanitarian standards,” said Noel Clay, a State Department spokesman.

He said the United States wants “a safe, secure, humane resolution of the impasse at Camp Ashraf.”

“Our interest is humanitarian and independent of our views of the MEK’s record,” he added.

The MEK, also known as People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, was responsible for terrorist attacks in Iran in the 1970s that killed several U.S. military personnel and civilians, according to the State Department. The group also received military and financial support from Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Camp Ashraf’s residents surrendered their weapons in 2003 as part of a cease-fire agreement with U.S. forces. The State Department is reviewing its designation of MEK as a terrorist organization. The European Union removed the group from its terrorist blacklist in 2009.

Mr. Kia, the Camp Ashraf spokesman, said residents haven’t changed their mind about moving to Camp Liberty, but they first want written assurances from the United Nations that all humanitarian conditions have been met at the new site.

Ms. Achouri, the U.N. spokeswoman in Baghdad, said the United Nations has urged the Iraqi government to accommodate requests from the residents of Camp Ashraf for more space at Camp Liberty and other requests, such as allowing the exiles to bring their vehicles to what will be their new home.