My colleague Barbara Slavin writes:
The US State Department Monday (June 18) warned an Iranian opposition group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), that its chances of being taken off a US terrorist list would be diminished if it does not fully evacuate its long-time base in Iraq.
State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland reminded the group that “cooperation in the closure of Camp Ashraf, the Mujahedin-e Khalq’s main paramilitary base, is a key factor in determining whether the organization remains invested in its violent past or is committed to leaving that past behind.”
A US Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, DC recently gave Secretary of State Hillary Clinton until Oct. 1 to decide whether the group, which claims it has renounced violence, should remain on a State Department list of foreign terrorist organizations, where it’s been since 1997. A senior official in the administration of US President Barack Obama told reporters Monday that MEK leaders appear to have “over-interpreted” the Court decision to mean that the organization will automatically be de-listed. That is wrong, the official said.
According to US officials, the group has stopped cooperating with UN and Iraqi authorities in evacuating Camp Ashraf. Since January, nearly 2,000 MEK members have left the camp, which is located about 56 kilometers north of Baghdad, and moved to another facility, Camp Liberty, near the Baghdad airport so they can be interviewed and processed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees for eventual resettlement abroad. However, no convoys have left Ashraf since May 5; 1,200-1,400 MEK members are still there, another senior US official said. He said the Iraqis, who initially set a Jan. 1 deadline for Ashraf to be closed, were now demanding that the last MEK member leave by July 20, the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The MEK, a Marxist-Islamist group with cult-like tendencies, lost out in a post-revolution power struggle in Iran and found refuge in Iraq, where it fought on the side of Saddam Hussein in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and organized subsequent attacks on Iranian officials.
In 2003, after toppling Saddam Hussein, the George W. Bush administration reneged on a promise to Iran to declare the Ashraf residents enemy combatants and instead gave them protection. However, sovereignty over the camp passed to Iraq in 2008. The Iraqi government, which has close ties with Iran, is running out of patience with the continued presence of the group at Ashraf and has sent troops into the base on several occasions, most recently in April 2011 when a number of MEK members were killed.
A US official who closely follows the issue and spoke on condition of anonymity told Al-Monitor that the “operating assumption” of the US government is that the MEK stopped sending out people because it thinks it can hold on to Ashraf if it comes off the terrorist list. He said it was also possible that the group is trying to protect certain members still at Ashraf. There have been rumors that the group’s leader, Massoud Rajavi, remains holed up there. The US official said that while no one knows for sure, it is believed that Rajavi died in 2003. In his absence, his wife, Maryam, runs the group from a headquarters outside Paris.
The MEK has mounted an extensive, and expensive, campaign in recent years to get off the terrorist list, paying tens of thousands of dollars to prominent former US officials including former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who is being investigated by the US Treasury Department for taking such funds. Hired demonstrators still chant pro-MEK slogans outside the State Department nearly every day.
Despite its irritation with the MEK, the Obama administration reiterated Monday that “the Iraqi government bears the responsibility for the security and humane treatment of the individuals at Camp Ashraf.”