BAGHDAD — Five weeks after the Iraqi army mounted a lethal assault on Iranian dissidents who've been stranded in a sealed-off camp north of Baghdad since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the U.S. government has offered to help relocate the 3,400 residents elsewhere in the country to avert a bigger bloodbath when Iraq closes the camp in December.
Leaders of the group, known as the People's Mujahedeen of Iran or MEK by its Farsi language initials, have rejected the move as a transfer into "a concentration camp." But the offer brings renewed attention to the April 8 raid, which left at least 34 people dead, amid questions about the U.S. role in what took place there.
Iraqi authorities have claimed that many of the dead were the victims of their own people, a charge MEK leaders call outlandish. Investigators for the United Nations said that most of the dead were shot, though an unspecified number were crushed to death when Iraqi troops and armored personnel carriers moved into the camp.
What is clear is that the assault reduced the size of Camp Ashraf, the MEK's enclave, by about one-third, to about six square miles.
Two days after the massacre, a combined U.S. civilian-military team went to the scene and performed forensic examinations of 28 of the victims and interviewed dozens of the wounded, MEK officials say. A U.S. military spokesman said some of the injured were taken to U.S. facilities for medical care. U.S. officials do not dispute the U.N. assertion that Iraqi forces are responsible for the mass killings.
U.S. troops were at Camp Ashraf up until the eve of the attack. According to Mohammad Mohaddessin, a senior official in the Paris-based political umbrella group, 40 to 50 uniformed U.S. troops arrived at Ashraf on April 2 and departed on the afternoon of April 7. Iraqi forces struck shortly before 5 a.m. the next morning.
A U.S. military spokesman said the U.S. units were not aware of any impending Iraqi operation at the camp. He said the U.S. troops had been sent to Ashraf to assist a new Iraqi army unit that was rotating into the area to replace another unit. When they left April 7, "there were no major concerns about the capability of the new Iraqi Army unit to assume the mission," said the spokesman, Col. Barry Johnson.
The MEK is one of the most controversial lingering legacies of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Originally a Marxist-Islamist group that advocated the violent overthrow of the Shah of Iran, the group later broke with the post-Shah Iranian government and took refuge in Iraq, where it fought alongside Saddam's forces as a mechanized division during the Iran-Iraq war that ended in 1988.
The U.S. declared the MEK a terrorist organization in 1997, citing a series of attacks in Tehran.
When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 it disarmed the group, seizing thousands of weapons from Camp Ashraf. The residents lived an almost monastic life, separated by sex and observing a strict ban on alcohol and smoking. Iran has demanded that camp residents be repatriated to Iran and has promised to reintegrate them into Iranian society, a pledge few MEK members trust. The camp residents have refused to leave Iraq, even though an estimated 300 to 400 of them have passports or residence permits from other countries.
They're highly vulnerable, "living on land they don't own, in a country where they're not wanted, and they're refusing to go," said a senior U.S. official, who insisted on anonymity so as not to jeopardize future negotiations.
Lawrence Butler, a senior adviser to James Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, presented the plan to relocate the MEK to north or central Iraq on Thursday. Mohaddessin, the MEK's Paris spokesman, said the plan, however, would lead "to a concentration camp" and "the ultimate result will be a new Auschwitz."
An MEK supporter, Struan Stevenson, a British Conservative Party member of the European Parliament, said relocating the MEK away from Camp Ashraf, which is 35 miles north of Baghdad, was "not an acceptable alternative," because it would cost the group the attention it currently receives and make it easier for the Iraqis to send them back to Iran or to conduct other attacks on the camp.
"They say the spotlight gives a small measure of protection from the Iraqis, who are acting at the behest of the Iranians," he said.
The group remains well financed. The group has taken out full-page ads in the New York Times and the Washington Post and has paid speaker fees of between $25,000 and $40,000 to former top U.S. officials who support removing them from the U.S. list of terrorist groups, including Dennis Blair, who was President Barack Obama's director of national intelligence until he was fired in May 2010.
Speaking by phone from Hanoi, Stevenson said he's hopeful the European Union and other friendly states will agree to take in the Ashraf residents.
The U.S. agrees that the camp residents must be relocated, saying leaving them where they are now is inviting disaster once U.S. troops withdraw from Iraq in December.
"We're committed to averting a certain confrontation with unwanted consequences," said the senior U.S. official who asked not to be identified.
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