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Iranian Exile Group Poses Vexing Issue for U.S. in Iraq

Posted by alanmirs on July 23, 2011


New York Times

Iranian Exile Group Poses Vexing Issue for U.S. in Iraq

Karim Kadim/Associated Press

Iraqi Army units outside Camp Ashraf in April, when a military raid on the camp left dozens dead and hundreds wounded.

By 
Published: July 22, 2011

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CAMP ASHRAF, Iraq — The more than 3,000 people living here once represented a powerful paramilitary organization bent on overthrowing the government in Iran. In the 1970s, the group killed Americans in Tehran, and after being given refuge by Saddam Hussein its members were suspected of serving as a mercenary unit that took part in his violent suppression of the Kurds in the north of Iraq and the Shiites in the south.

Now they are unwelcome in Iraq but believe they should be given protection in the United States — even though their group, known as the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran, remains on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.

“You probably have in mind Hawaii,” said Ambassador Lawrence E. Butler, the American diplomat who has been negotiating with the group in recent sessions here.

“I suspect you don’t want to go to Guantánamo,” he added.

For the last three months, Mr. Butler, the foreign policy adviser to Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the top American military commander in Iraq, has shuttled almost every week between Baghdad and Camp Ashraf, an outpost in Diyala Province near the Iranian border. Offering humor and bluntness, he has sought to cajole the exiles to leave their camp and avert what will almost certainly be another violent confrontation with the Iraqi security forces if they stay.

As the American military begins its final withdrawal from Iraq, the situation at Camp Ashraf is among the most vexing of the unfinished chapters of the American war here.

The group adheres to an ideology that is a mix of devout Shiism and Marxism, and in the initial phase of the war the Americans bombed the camp and killed several of its members before disarming the group, which had more than 2,000 tanks and armored personnel carriers. But the Americans later provided security for the camp as the Iraqi government, which is friendly with Iran, turned hostile to the group. A raid on the camp in April by the Iraqi Army left dozens dead and hundreds wounded.

Mr. Butler’s mission has been to seek a solution that will save residents’ lives by first moving them to another camp away from the Iranian border, and then to other countries for resettlement. His goal is humanitarian, he said. He betrayed no sympathies for the group’s politics or forgiveness for its misdeeds. He wants them to move, he said, because he fears a slaughter at the hands of the Iraqi Army if they stay.

That solution has proved tricky, however, because the residents are refusing to leave, and no countries have come forward to welcome them. But the clock is ticking, and several times Mr. Butler has reminded members of the group that American forces will be leaving.

For Mr. Butler, the former ambassador to Macedonia whose diplomatic career has placed him across the negotiating table from members of the Irish Republican Army and war criminals in the Balkans, the current dealings have proved just as tough.

“If I don’t get assurances that you will move to a new location in Iraq, the next round of negotiations could be very short,” he admonished the group near the end of the recent session.

After a half-dozen such sessions, he has made little progress in getting the group to agree to leave the camp before Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s government follows through on its promise to shut it down by the end of the year.

Adding to his difficulties, the group has a formidable and well-financed communications machine. It has attracted political figures like Howard Dean and Wesley K. Clark, the retired Army general, by paying them to make speeches in support of the group, fueling its resistance to a move and angering officials trying to bargain with it, like Mr. Butler.

Referring to General Clark, Mr. Butler asked the group, “How much was he paid?” He added, “He doesn’t get out of bed for less than $25,000.”

To this, one member replied that none of the group’s famous advocates were “doing it for the money.”

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