The Iraqi government has promised to shutter Camp Ashraf -- the home of the Iranian dissident group Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK) -- by Dec. 31. Now, the United Nations and the State Department are scrambling to move the MEK to another location inside Iraq, which just may be a former U.S. military base.
The saga puts the United Nations and President Barack Obama's administration in the middle of a struggle between the Iraqi government, a new and fragile ally, and the MEK, a persecuted group that is also on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations.
The Marxist-Islamist group, which was formed in 1965, was used by Saddam Hussein to attack the Iranian government during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and has been implicated in the deaths of U.S. military personnel and civilians. The new Iraqi government has been trying to evict them from Camp Ashraf since the United States toppled Saddam in 2003. The U.S. military guarded the outside of the camp until handing over external security to the Iraqis in 2009. The Iraqi Army has since tried twice to enter Camp Ashraf, resulting in bloody clashes with the MEK both times.
Now the United Nations, led by Martin Kobler, the head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), is working with the State Department to convince the Iraqi government and the MEK to open up a new home for MEK members inside Iraq, at a facility near the Baghdad airport. U.S. officials won't confirm, but also won't deny, that facility is a U.S. military base that was recently handed over to the Iraqis.
"Ambassador Kobler and we are working flat out to put together the deal for the beginning of the implementation of his plan, which is to move the people in Camp Ashraf to a new facility," a State Department official told reporters in a special Monday briefing. The United Nations and State are hoping that if an agreement is reached, the Iraqi government will push back the deadline and not invade Camp Ashraf on Dec. 31 and forcibly extradite the MEK to Iran. But time is running out.
"Time is extraordinarily short," the State Department official said. "Oh yes, we're talking days."
The State Department official said the new facility under discussion is near the Baghdad airport, and has extensive infrastructure that "is very well known to the United States." Pressed by The Cable, the official refused to confirm that it was a former U.S. military base, but wouldn't deny it either. "It's a highly credible facility," the official said.
The official could not say if there was any precedent for a group that the United States labels a foreign terrorist organization being housed in a facility built by the U.S. military with U.S. taxpayer dollars, but emphasized that all U.S. military installations have now been turned over to the Iraqi government. The Victory Base Complex near the airport has several facilities that could be used for the Camp Ashraf residents.
Nobody knows how many people are in Camp Ashraf, because nobody can go inside. The residents are also suspected to be well armed. There could be as many as 3,200 people there, according to the State Department. If they are evicted from the camp, some will voluntarily go back to Iran and some will go to other countries. Others still may not actually be MEK members but could be living there for their own reason, making their relocation easier, the official said. The unknown number of "card-carrying members" of the MEK who can't or won't be relocated are the ones who the United Nations and State are trying to move to the new camp.
The United Nations and the Iraqi government have agreed on the basic way forward, but the MEK is not on board, the State Department official said. The Iraqi government won't talk directly to the MEK, and the MEK leadership living in Paris may have different priorities than the people actually living in Camp Ashraf.
Of course, the Iraqis have been warning for months that they would close Camp Ashraf by the end of the year. So why is everybody scrambling in the last two weeks? The State Department is placing the blame squarely on the MEK.
"For a long time, the MEK position was ‘here we are and here we stay, period,'" a State Department official said. "In recent days we've had the first signs that the MEK is finally, at long last, beginning to engage in a serious way, rather than simply politically through its many, many advocates. This is a good sign."
Reporters at the briefing wondered why the United Nations and State think simply relocating the MEK to another facility will solve the problem of its status as a terrorist group whose members are unable to get refugee status in a country where they are not welcome. The official said the new facility would be better because it would give the Iraqi government some control over what goes on there.
"[Camp Ashraf] is a state within a state. It is run by the MEK and when anybody else tries to enter, well, we've seen what occurs," one State Department official said, explaining that the new camp would have some type of Iraqi government administration and yet not be in total control of the MEK. "Iraqi soveriegnty will prevail with a robust set or arrangements and U.N. monitoring."
Another reason the United Nations and State are pushing for the MEK to be moved from Camp Ashraf to another facility is that the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has refused to give refugee status to Ashraf residents because of the MEK's tight control over the people there.
"Many international observers have regarding the current facility at Camp Ashraf as a coercive environment. Independent observers have called it a cult," the State Department said. "The UNHCR requires an atmosphere in which people can make their own choice free of group pressure. What's happened in Camp Ashraf has not been conducive to this."
Advocating for the MEK is a tricky proposition for the State Department, because the organization is on its list of foreign terrorist organizations. The MEK has been lobbying hard for its removal from that list and State's review of their status has been "ongoing" for years.
As part of its multi-million dollar lobbying effort, the MEK has paid dozens of top U.S. officials and former officials to speak on its behalf, sometimes at rallies on the State Department's doorstep. MEK supporters have been stationed outside the State Department non-stop for months now, and are even showing up at Congressional hearings.
Their list of advocates, most who have admitted being paid, includes Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, former FBI Director Louis Freeh, former Sen. Robert Torricelli, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, former CIA Deputy Director of Clandestine Operations John Sano, former National Security Advisor James Jones, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers, former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, Gen. Wesley Clark, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, former CIA Director Porter Goss, senior advisor to the Romney campaign Mitchell Reiss, Gen. Anthony Zinni, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, former Sen. Evan Bayh, and many others.
The State Department officials didn't say outright that these officials are making the challenge of dealing with the MEK worse by shilling for the organization around Washington. But they did call on the MEK's paid representatives to use whatever clout they have to urge the MEK to go along with the relocation now.
"It is important for those advocates to support a solution that is feasible. Because maximalist demands and echoing a kind of martyrdom and complex of defiance and blood will produce the results they fear. Now is the time for everybody who says they want a peaceful solution to back that solution right now," the official said.
But what happens after the MEK moves to the new facility, even if the current deal is worked out in time? What's the plan to deal with these people over the long run?
"Right now our priority is in a successful, peaceful relocation," the State Department official said. "One huge problem at a time."
UPDATE: The AP reported has just reported that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has decided to grant a 6-month extenstion on the closing of Camp Ashraf, although he is backdating the start of the extension to November.
MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.