Washington, DC – According to top U.S. officials, Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) leadership is blocking efforts to protect residents at the organization’s encampment at Camp Ashraf in Iraq.
A December 31st deadline set by the Iraqi government to close the camp is being leveraged by pro-MEK advocates in their campaign to have the group removed from the U.S. list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. They say that residents of Camp Ashraf could face a “massacre” at the hands of Iraqi security forces and that the terrorist designation only increases this risk.
But U.S. officials testified before the House Foreign Affairs Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee last week that efforts to peacefully resolve the standoff are being rebuffed by MEK leadership. U.S. Special Adviser on Camp Ashraf Daniel Fried said MEK leadership has impeded a refugee resettlement process and interfered with the UN’s ability to conduct interviews with individuals at the encampment.
Fried told Congress that the Administration’s efforts have been met “intransigence by Camp Ashraf leadership to agree to any relocation plan other than en masse relocation outside Iraq.” The MEK’s leadership has demanded that the group be relocated only as a single unit, rather than allowing residents to relocate individually.
According to leaked diplomatic cables, Iraqi President Nouri Al Maliki is under pressure from Iran to close Camp Ashraf, which straddles the Iranian border. Moving the residents away from the border has been proposed as a means to defuse Iranian pressure while allowing individuals at Camp Ashraf to seek resettlement elsewhere through the United Nations.
But the UN refugee relocation process, in order to be successfully completed, requires unmonitored interviews between residents of Camp Ashraf. MEK blocked this process, demanding that their leadership be present during the process, until September of this year when they announced they would allow interviews to go forward.
Immediately after that announcement, however, MEK advocates argued that the group should be allowed to stay at Ashraf beyond the December 31 Iraqi deadline to allow time for the process to go forward. And now, U.S. officials indicate MEK is obstructing the process, suggesting that the leadership may be attempting to delay the camp’s closure indefinitely.
“The U.S. government is taking every responsible action possible, working with the government of Iraq, the United Nations, and our allies and partners, and in contact with the residents of Camp Ashraf and those who speak for them, to assure that any relocation …is done humanely,” said Ambassador Fried.
But lawmakers at the hearing placed the onus on the United States rather than the MEK. Congressman Ted Poe (R-TX) said the MEK are “freedom fighters” not terrorists. Dana Rohrbacher (R-CA) implied that the MEK’s designation as a terrorist group was the main stumbling block in preventing a resolution to the Ashraf situation. The MEK’s supporters have engaged in a massive public relations and lobbying campaign to pressure lawmakers to support the group’s bid to be taken off the Foreign Terrorist Organizations list.
Rohrbacher challenged the sincerity of the administration, saying the MEK is “a secular opposition group…a peaceful community of political refugees which do not deserve a terrorist label.” He warned that if violence broke at at Camp Ashraf, “The blood in the sand will stain the Gucci shoes of those in the State Department.”
Also testifying was Ambassador Lincoln P. Bloomfield, who works on behalf of Akin Gump, a group retained by pro-MEK Iranian American Community of Northern California to lobby for the organization’s removal from the terror list. Bloomfield said the MEK is not a terrorist group.
Ambassador Fried challenged such assertions, and summarized what he said is the long history of MEK involvement in terrorism. For instance, said Fried, “in April 1992, the MEK became one of the few groups to attempt an attack on U.S. soil when it launched near-simultaneous attacks in thirteen countries, including against the Iranian mission to the United Nations in New York.”
Co-director of the Brookings Institute Elizabeth Farris testified that a resolution needs the involvement of the international community. “Given the extraordinary politicization of Camp Ashraf, if durable situations are to be found, the situation needs to be depoliticized by relying on multilateral actors applying internationally-recognized standards and practices.” During his closing statement, representative Rohrabacher acknowledged that the MEK leadership can be more helpful in reaching a resolution.
Despite the complexity of the situation, Fried said “a humane and relocation is possible, but it will take intense and serious efforts by all parties.”
“The leaders of Ashraf…we encourage them to step forward…so that there can be a mutually agreed arrangement rather than something that is unilateral. Unilateral doesn’t work.”