The State Department said Wednesday that Iraq has assured the United States it will not forcibly repatriate members of an Iranian rebel group that has been based in Iraq since the Saddam Hussein era. The status of about 3,500 members of the Iranian exile group, the Mujaheddin-e Khalq, or MEK, has been an issue of contention between Iraq and Iran.
The Iraqi government served notice late last week that it intends to evict the MEK members from its U.S.-protected encampment north of Baghad. But officials here say Baghdad authorities have assured the Bush administration the group's members will not be forced to return to Iran, where they could face imprisonment or worse.
The MEK was founded in the 1960s as an opponent of the late Shah of Iran. It carried out attacks the following decade that killed several U.S. military personnel and civilians working on defense projects in Iran-earning it a place on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations.
The group was driven into exile after Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution. It regrouped in Iraq under the protection of Saddam Hussein and staged attacks into Iran that killed government officials and security forces.
After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the group was disarmed by American forces and its members remain at the northern Iraqi site, Camp Ashraf, protected by U.S. troops despite the terrorist designation.
Their presence has been an irritant in relations between the Baghdad government and Iran. Iraq will assume jurisdiction over the camp once the new U.S.-Iraqi forces agreement takes effect in the new year and senior Iraqi officials went to Camp Ashraf Saturday to tell the group it faced expulsion.
In a talk with reporters, State Department Deputy Spokesman Robert Wood said Iraqi officials also assured the United States there will be no effort to forcibly repatriate the rebels to Iran despite calls for that from Tehran.
"We've talked to the Iraqis about the Mujaheddine-e Khalq in Camp Ashraf, and they've committed to us that they would deal with these people according to the Iraqi constitution. They would not force anybody to return to Iran, and we believe that to be the case, that they don't plan to do that. And we'll go from there," he said.
Spokesman Wood said Iran can make any kind of demand it wants with regard to the MEK members, but said U.S. officials "have no reason to doubt" Iraq's commitment not to send them back to their home country.
He said it would be "premature" to discuss possible resettlement scenarios for the MEK members.
But he did say the Bush administration is reviewing the group's terrorist designation, which he said has made resettlement of group members in the United States "problematic."
A senior State Department official said if the MEK is taken off the terrorism list, the United States would "obviously" consider admitting some of it members.
The official said he could not predict how long the review might take but said a decision could pass to the incoming administration which takes office January 20 and that he expected consultations on the issue with the Obama transition team.