State 'twiddling its thumbs' over Iranian dissidents, lawmakers say

Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., left, and Foreign Affairs ranking member Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., stand next to a display of portraits of the victims of the Oct. 29 Camp Liberty attack. (Lynn Dykstra, Focused Images)

By Daniel Chaitin

Republican lawmakers say efforts to relocate a group of Iranian dissidents living in Iraq must be expedited and that the Obama administration has been too passive in the wake of a missile barrage last week that killed dozens of refugees.

At a commemoration on Capitol Hill Thursday, Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, accused the State Department of "twiddling its thumbs" in its protection of Camp Liberty and called for the resignation of the official in the Iraqi government charged with protecting the encampment.

"His job is to protect the residents and he cannot do that or he won't do it, he needs to go," Poe said. "And Iraq needs to replace that individual with someone who will actually do what they are supposed to, secure the security of the people in Camp Liberty. And the United States needs to push harder on the Iraqi government to do this, and insist on it, and take no for no answer."

Poe, who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade, also said he and a bipartisan group of lawmakers wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry in September asking the State Department to provide protective gear and equipment to the residents of the camp. The State Department never replied, but he said, "We did get a response from the bad guys."

The Oct. 29 attack on Camp Liberty, located northeast of Baghdad International Airport and inhabited by about 2,250 members of the Mujahideen-e Khalq, an exiled opposition group to the Islamic Republic, left 24 residents dead and dozens of others injured. The Mukhtar Army, a Shiite Iraqi militia backed by the Iranian regime, claimed responsibility and threatened more attacks.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle blame the attack on Tehran, but Republicans and Democrats have struck a different tone on what to do to protect the refugees.

"We are totally against the repression of the Iranian regime and what they've done," said Foreign Affairs Ranking Member Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y. "We think that the people of the United States need to understand more clearly about what is really happening."

Engel echoed Kerry's statement following the attack, in which he pressed the Iraqi government to provide medical supplies and improve security to Camp Liberty inhabitants. Kerry also urged the Iraqis to "find the perpetrators and hold them accountable for the attack, consistent with its obligations under the Dec. 25, 2011, agreement with the United Nations."

Part of the problem with reaching out to the Iraqi government, say several Republicans, is that it has no interest in protecting the MEK.

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., said the outlook by the administration and the United Nations is "too optimistic." Instead, he said the U.S. must help speed up the process to resettle the dissidents to Europe.

Several hundred Camp Liberty refugees have already been relocated, mainly to Albania.

In 2004, following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the MEK residing at Camp Asraf handed over their weapons and submitted to U.S. military protection. This was after the U.S. reportedly bombed the encampment as part of a deal with Iran, which promised to repatriate some members of al Qaeda if the U.S. attacked the MEK.

The U.S. handed over responsibility to protect the dissidents to the Iraqi government in 2009, which moved the group to Camp Liberty in 2012. After Camp Liberty was repeatedly attacked in 2013, the MEK appealed to the United Nations to allow them to return to Camp Asraf, which they said provided better protection.

In the meantime, the U.N. High Commission for Refugees is leading the effort to move Camp Liberty residents out of Iraq, which the State Department says it is committed to assisting.

But the U.S., while supporting the effort to relocate the MEK refugees, has not led the charge by example, said Ali Safavi, a member of Iran's Parliament in Exile, the National Council of Resistance of Iran of which the MEK is the largest component. Individuals wishing to immigrate to the U.S. must "disavow" their MEK affiliation first, he added.

The U.S. listed the MEK as a terrorist organization for past alleged attacks on Americans, but was removed from the list in 2012.

"At the current rate of relocation, it would take until 2021 for all the inhabitants of Camp Liberty to be relocated — and that's if Albania accepts more" refugees and if there are sufficient funds available, Safavi told the Washington Examiner.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican who served as the first U.S. secretary of homeland security from 2003-05, says he also backs expedited resettlement.

Until the dissidents are all evacuated, he said the administration should address the attack directly. He said he liked the idea of placing Camp Liberty within the aerial perimeter of U.S. air protection, provided to nearby Baghdad International Airport. This would ensure protection from missiles and mortar attacks.

"I think that's easily done," said Ridge. "You can do it with the stroke of the pen, a simple direction from the president or the secretary of state and the United States military command ... This will not be enough, but it is about time we start living up to our promises, and this will be a very important and effective first step."