U.N. urges Iraq to move Iranian dissidents to new camp
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Iraq on Wednesday to speed up the transfer of Iranian dissidents at a camp near Baghdad to a temporary facility which the dissident group has compared to a prison.
Camp Ashraf, 40 miles from Baghdad, has been home for 25 years to the People's Mujahideen Organization of Iran, or PMOI, an Iranian opposition group the United States and Iran officially consider a terrorist organization.
The current Iraqi government has never concealed its desire get rid of the camp. Under pressure from the United Nations and European Union, Baghdad extended its deadline to close Ashraf late last year from December 31, 2011 to April 30, 2012.
But Ban is now urging Baghdad not to wait until April.
"The Secretary-General believes that the time has come to start the relocation process without further delay," Ban's press office said in a statement. "He urges the Iraqi authorities and the residents of Camp Ashraf to continue to cooperate and complete the process in a peaceful manner."
The statement said the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has "confirmed that the infrastructure and facilities at the temporary transit location are in accordance with ... international humanitarian standards."
It was not immediately clear how the Iranians at Camp Ashraf reacted to Ban's call to accelerate their move out of the camp.
Earlier this month a spokesman for the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the PMOI's political wing, dismissed suggestions from U.N. special envoy to Iraq Martin Kobler that conditions at the new facility - Camp Liberty - were acceptable.
The spokesman, Shahin Gobadi, said in an email the new facility would have "prison conditions," with residents denied the freedom to come and go and without access to lawyers and medical services.
Camp residents will also be banned from taking vehicles and other property with them, apart from "individual belongings," and will only be able to contact U.N. officials by telephone, Gobadi said.
In an article in Wednesday's New York Times, however, Kobler said the new camp would have medical facilities and would be monitored around the clock by U.N. observers. Residents would be interviewed by the U.N. refugee agency to determine their eligibility to resettle as refugees outside Iraq, he added.
Camp Ashraf continued to operate after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. But its future became unclear after Washington turned it over to Iraq in 2009. Baghdad has repeatedly said it does not want the guerrilla group on Iraqi soil.
Kobler said Camp Ashraf's leaders, after agreeing in principle to move out an initial group of 400 residents, had hesitated in recent days to do so, placing new conditions on the transfer to which the Iraqi government rejected.
"The government's patience is wearing thin, and further delay could lead to provocation and violence," he said. "Change is understandably unsettling for the residents, but maintaining the status quo is neither a safe nor viable option."
In the 1970s, the PMOI led a guerrilla campaign against the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran but after the 1979 Islamic revolution turned against Iran's new clerical rulers. It was hosted in Iraq by former leader Saddam Hussein, a bitter foe of Iran.
Late last year, there were several rocket attacks on Camp Ashraf, which the NCRI blamed on the Quds Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps "and its Iraqi agents."
In April 2011, Ashraf was the scene of clashes between residents and Iraqi security forces, during which 34 people were killed, according to a U.N. investigation.
(Reporting By Louis Charbonneau; editing by Todd Eastham)