WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States warned an Iranian dissident group on Monday to follow through on plans to close a base in Iraq founded under Saddam Hussein, saying it was “gravely mistaken” to believe there was any other option.
The State Department urged the group, the Mujahadin-e Khalq (MEK), to resume transferring its members from the Camp Ashraf base to a converted U.S. military facility under an Iraqi government plan to eventually expel them from the country.
“The peaceful closure of Camp Ashraf is achievable,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement “Constructive offers must be met with a constructive spirit, and not with refusals or preconditions to engage in dialogue.”
The group, which calls for the overthrow of Iran’s clerical leaders, is no longer welcome in Iraq under the Shi‘ite-led government that came to power after Saddam’s downfall in 2003.
Also known as the People’s Mujahideen Organization of Iran, the group led a guerrilla campaign against the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran during the 1970s that included attacks on U.S. targets.
The United States added the MEK to its official list of foreign terrorist organizations in 1997, but the group has since said that it has renounced violence and has mounted a legal and public relations campaign to have its terrorist designation dropped.
U.S. officials say that about 1,200 to 1,400 residents remain at Camp Ashraf, while about 2,000 have relocated to the new base outside of Baghdad since transfers began in February.
A U.S. appeals court this month ordered Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to decide within four months whether to drop the MEK from the terrorist list, and U.S. officials have signaled that closing Camp Ashraf is a necessary first step.
U.S. officials said on Monday the process appeared stalemated. The MEK stopped convoys of Camp Ashraf residents to the new facility in early May, and has reduced contact with the Iraqi government and with U.N. authorities seeking to process MEK members as potential refugees, they said.
“We don’t know why the MEK slowdown is underway,” said one senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. The official added that the group’s leaders may have overinterpreted the U.S. court ruling as a guarantee that it would escape the terrorist list.
“It appears that the MEK leaders believe that the secretary has no choice now but to delist them and that is quite plainly wrong,” said a second senior U.S. official, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The MEK’s cooperation in the successful and peaceful closure of Camp Ashraf will be a key factor in her decision. ... She (Clinton) retains complete discretion on this matter,” this official said.
U.S. officials said the MEK may also believe it can wait out the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, which has signaled that it is determined to see the group removed from Iraq.
“We believe that they are gravely mistaken to think that any conceivable Iraqi government would in fact allow them to remain as a paramilitary organization in Iraq,” the first official said. “If they are overconfident they are making a serious, serious mistake.”
The State Department also called on Iraq’s government to do more to provide for the safety, security, and humanitarian treatment of the former Camp Ashraf residents. The MEK has complained of mistreatment and poor conditions at the new facility where they are being transferred.
A group of senior Iraqi officials involved in the relocation process is due in Europe this week to urge European governments to accept more former residents of Camp Ashraf as refugees, the U.S. officials said.
Editing by Will Dunham