WASHINGTON — U.S. officials are treading cautiously in the wake of the Iraqi crackdown this week on an Iranian separatist group, opting for now to prod Iraqi military leaders to act responsibly and humanely as they police Camp Ashraf.
U.S. embassy officials on Thursday met formally with Iraqi political leaders on the issue of the refugee camp, where members of the Iraqi police and the Mujaheddin-e Khalq clashed earlier this week.
State Department officials said for now the Iraqi government has made no long-term decisions on whether members of the group may be sent back to Iran, and police officials have insisted that their actions so far have been designed to improve security in the area.
The Mujaheddin-e Khalq, or MEK, for years has shared an uneasy relationship with the U.S. government. Officially the group has been on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations since 2003. Unofficially, the group has been a resource — particularly for the Bush administration — on the Iranian nuclear program.
The group, a vocal and violent critic of the current Iranian government, has nearly 3,000 members living in Ashraf.
On Friday, spokesmen for the MEK told Western news outlets that at least 12 people have been killed in the clashes, and hundreds more injured.
The group’s political arm, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, blasted Iraqi officials for the assault, calling it "revenge" on behalf of Iranian officials. They’ve called for U.S. forces to reassume control of Ashraf and to protect MEK members there, and they’ve petitioned for United Nations intervention to determine their future status within Iraq.
The violence began Tuesday, the same day Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited the country on a tour of the Middle East. State department officials earlier this week downplayed the timing of the attack.
"We have senior officials in Baghdad all the time," spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters. "I don’t think there was any particular political signal that anybody intended to send in terms of the timing."
On Thursday, a team of U.S. medical personnel traveled to Ashraf in the aftermath of the violence, rushing some of the more seriously injured residents to American medical facilities for treatment. Iraqi doctors were also on scene, although they arrived separately.
Multi-National Force — Iraq officials said in a statement that medical personnel will continue work in the area for the next few days "in coordination with Government of Iraq officials."
Regional experts said the crackdown on MEK supporters in Iraq shouldn’t come as a surprise to U.S. officials, since the new Iraqi government has openly expressed its desire to repair relations with Iran.
"They’re going to have strong ties to Iran, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care about the U.S. anymore," said Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "Most of the governments in that region do have a good relationship with Iran. It doesn’t have to be a mutually exclusive thing."
Brookings Institute fellow Michael O’Hanlon called the assault a "debatable decision" but added "we can’t leave unless they are willing to make these kinds of decisions, even if I’m not sure I like this particular one."
But the move does further complicate the United States’ relationship with the Iranian dissidents. Stephen Cook, a Middle East scholar for the Council on Foreign Relations, said he doesn’t see the U.S. jeopardizing its status with Iraq to protect the MEK, despite the group’s help in the past providing intelligence on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
"They’re a useful tool, but they aren’t the only one," he said. "The Iraqis want to show Iran that they’re not a threat, so they’ll go after [MEK]. And there’s too much at stake right now for the administration to stick their heads out for a group that’s still identified as a terrorist organization by the state department."
The U.S. will still push for a lighter hand at Camp Ashraf, Cook said, but intervening further is too risky in the larger diplomatic strategy.
"Unfortunately," Cook said, "sometimes groups like this just get caught in the middle."