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Iraq agrees to move Iranian dissidents from Camp Ashraf, as residents report rocket attack
BAGHDAD (AP) ' The United Nations and the Iraqi government agreed to relocate several thousand Iranian exiles living in a camp in northeastern Iraq, potentially averting a showdown with its residents. The dissidents, who have yet to say if they will go willingly, reported a rocket attack on the camp.
The People's Mujahedeen Organization of Iran, one-time allies of Saddam Hussein in a common fight against Iran, said Katyusha rockets struck near housing units inside the camp on Sunday night, but did not report any casualties. Representatives of the camp could not be reached for comment Monday morning.
Since Saddam's overthrow, Iraq's new leaders have improved relations with Iran and have sought to shut down the camp, home to 3,400 residents and located in barren terrain northeast of Baghdad about 50 miles (80 kilometers) from the Iranian border. The U.N. reported that at least 34 people were killed in a raid by Iraqi government forces in April.
The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq announced an agreement Sunday night that establishes a process to move the residents of Camp Ashraf to a temporary location. It did not give a timeline for the move or specify the new location.
A statement from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the residents would be moved to Camp Liberty, a former U.S. military base near the Baghdad International Airport.
At Camp Liberty, the U.N.'s refugee agency will interview the residents to determine their eligibility to get refugee status, before they can eventually be resettled in third countries, Clinton said.
"We are encouraged by the Iraqi government's willingness to commit to this plan, and expect it to fulfill all its responsibilities," she said in the statement. "To be successful, this resettlement must also have the full support of the camp's residents, and we urge them to work with the U.N. to implement this relocation."
The People's Mujahedeen Organization of Iran first moved to Camp Ashraf during the regime of Saddam, who saw the group as a convenient ally against Tehran. The group is committed to the overthrow of the Iranian regime.
The group carried out a series of bombings and assassinations against Iran's clerical regime in the 1980s and fought alongside Saddam's forces in the Iran-Iraq war. But the group says it renounced violence in 2001. U.S. soldiers disarmed them during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been determined to close down the camp by the end of December. His government considers the camp as an affront to Iraq's sovereignty.
Last week, an Iraqi government spokesman said the government was working out a solution to the situation at Camp Ashraf with the U.N. and would allow the camp to stay open into January as residents are being relocated. At the time, representatives of the residents suggested they would be willing to move, as long as their security was provided for.
Under the agreement outlined by the U.N., the international organization will monitor the relocation process and then a team from the U.N.'s refugee agency will be deployed at the new location to process the refugee claims.
Officials from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad will also visit regularly, the State Department said.
The Iraqi government will be responsible for the exiles' safety during that time, and will have a liaison officer from the Ministry of Human Rights involved in the relocation, the U.N. said.
"I would like to highlight that the government is exclusively responsible for the safety and security of the residents both during their transfer and in the new location until they leave the country," said Martin Kobler, Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General for Iraq.
The Iraqi government's vow to close Camp Ashraf had raised concerns that forcibly removing its residents would result in violence.
The People's Mujahedeen has been branded a foreign terrorist organization by the United States, a designation now under review by the State Department. It has been removed from similar blacklists in Europe.