The United Nations and the Iraqi government have reached a deal to transfer more than 3,000 Iranian dissidents living in a camp north of Baghdad, potentially averting what international observers have warned would be a massacre.
Martin Kobler, the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative for Iraq, and Iraqi National Security Adviser Faleh Fayad signed the deal, which was announced late Sunday.
Under the agreement, Iranian dissidents at Camp Ashraf will be transferred to Camp Liberty, a former U.S. military base near the Baghdad International Airport.
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees then will determine refugee status of the dissidents, a necessary step for their resettlement outside Iraq.
The Iraqi government is “exclusively responsible for the safety and security of the residents both during their transfer and in the new location until they leave the country,” Mr. Kobler said.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton praised the deal but said it must have the full support of the dissidents, urging them to work with the U.N. to implement the plan.
The dissidents have not responded to the deal, and a spokesman for the group told The Washington Times on Monday that they are waiting to review the official document.
Camp Ashraf is home to members of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), which the State Department designated a terrorist group in 1997. The dissidents surrendered their weapons in 2003 as part of a cease-fire agreement with U.S. forces.
The camp has come under attack by Iraqi forces several times. In April, the Iraqi army attacked the camp and killed 36 residents, including eight women.
On Sunday, the dissidents said Camp Ashraf had come under rocket fire.
The Iraqi government has agreed to allow the U.N. to station monitors at the new camp. U.S. Embassy officials in Baghdad will visit the camp, and a liaison officer from the Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights also will be involved in the process.
The MEK leadership has demanded “minimum assurances,” including round-the-clock monitoring by the U.N. and U.S. until all Camp Ashraf residents have been resettled outside Iraq.
“We hope that [the deal] would officially include the minimum assurances so that it would be acceptable to Ashraf residents,” said Shahin Ghobadi, a Paris-based spokesman for the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a political coalition that includes the MEK.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government had set a Dec. 31 deadline to close Camp Ashraf. Last week, Mr. al-Maliki agreed to a six-month extension of the deadline.
Mr. Kobler said the deal respects Iraq’s sovereignty and its international humanitarian and human rights obligations, and protects the security and rights of the camp’s residents.
“At the same time, the residents of camp [Ashraf] have to abide by the laws of Iraq,” he added.
Mr. Gobadi said the dissidents will not accept forcible relocation.
Mr. Kobler said the deal is about “voluntary relocation and its implementation is based firmly on all sides acting peacefully and in good faith.”
Mrs. Clinton said the U.S. fully supports the U.N. effort and the deal “outlines steps necessary to achieve a peaceful and viable solution for the residents of Ashraf.”
“We are encouraged by the Iraqi government’s willingness to commit to this plan and expect it to fulfill all its responsibilities, especially the elements of the [memorandum of understanding] that provide for the safety and security of Ashraf’s residents,” she added.
At a congressional hearing earlier this month, Daniel Fried, special adviser to Mrs. Clinton on Camp Ashraf, accused the MEK leadership of intransigence over plans to relocate Camp Ashraf residents.
The MEK leadership says the Iraqi government has exploited its terrorist designation by the State Department as an excuse to persecute camp residents.
Critics of Mr. al-Maliki, a Shiite, accuse him of acting against the dissidents on the behest of the Shiite-led regime in Iran.
The State Department is reviewing the terrorist designation after a July 2010 order from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
Britain and the European Union took the MEK off their lists of terrorist organizations in 2008 and 2009, respectively.
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.
U.S. officials say it would require an act of Congress to resettle the dissidents in the U.S.
“Immigration prohibitions would likely prevent many Ashraf residents from being admitted to the United States, regardless of the MEK’s designation as a foreign terrorist organization,” Mr. Fried told lawmakers at the hearing.
In June of 2009, the U.S. turned over control of Camp Ashraf to the Iraqi government, which gave written assurances that it would treat the residents in accordance with Iraq’s Constitution and its international obligations.