Briefing On the Situation at Camp Ashraf
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. So we’ll go ahead and get started. Everybody, this is Ambassador Fried. This session is on the record, unless otherwise indicated. We do have the director of our Iraq office here to go into some further detail if necessary. But as we start, this is all on the record, unless otherwise indicated.
So Ambassador Fried, please go ahead.
AMBASSADOR FRIED: I’ll start out with some prepared remarks and then take your questions if that’s all right. Oh, and forgive me if I speak a little slowly. This is the result of Novocain and the dentist this morning.
The U.S. seeks a safe, secure, humane resolution of the impasse at Camp Ashraf. Our interest is humanitarian and independent of our views of the MEK’s past record. Thanks to intense efforts by Ambassador Martin Kobler, the head of the UN Mission in Iraq, a reasonable path forward for a safe and secure relocation from Ashraf to Camp Liberty is at hand. On Christmas Day, Kobler signed with the Government of Iraq an MOU that provides details of the transfer and commitments from the Iraqi Government for the safety and security of the residents of Camp Ashraf.
The residents of Camp Ashraf will be moved from Camp Ashraf to former Camp Liberty, which used to be a U.S. military facility and is located near the Baghdad Airport. UNHCR is – will begin immediately to process these people for refugee status. At the same time, those wishing to return voluntarily to Iran as, by the way, several hundred from Ashraf have already done, will be able to do so.
The UN will conduct 24/7 monitoring at Camp Liberty – or former Camp Liberty. In addition, Embassy Baghdad will visit former Camp Liberty on a frequent basis to provide robust observation. The Government of Iraq has agreed in this MOU to the safety and security of Camp Liberty and those there and not to forcibly repatriate any resident of Camp Ashraf/former Camp Liberty to Iran. The Government of Iraq accepted many of Ambassador Kobler’s suggestions, and the plan agreed now reflects major progress since the discussions began. Secretary Clinton, the EU, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon have all publicly welcomed the signing of the MOU and have urged that it be implemented in good faith by all sides.
This is Iraq we’re talking about, however. We must be realistic about the difficulties. We’re also acutely aware of the mistrust and even animosity between the MEK and many Iraqis, given the MEK’s history in Iraq. We’re concerned by the recent series of rocket attacks on Ashraf and we condemn them. While these have not caused injuries or damaged property, they heighten and underscore the risks in this situation. U.S. facilities in the area have also been under attack recently.
The UN has expressed its concerns about these attacks to the Iraqi Government. We are doing so as well. Nevertheless and for – perhaps especially because of these attacks, it’s important to move ahead with the MOU. We welcome the willingness expressed yesterday by the MEK to cooperate with implementation of the MOU, specifically their announcement that they are prepared to move the first 400 persons to Camp – to former Camp Liberty. That move is being prepared now.
The UN is putting its assets in place for monitoring and refugee processing. It’s up to the Iraqi Government to prepare Camp Liberty, to receive the first residents of Ashraf, and this is likely to take several more days at least. It’s important that this first move be followed by other moves from Ashraf to former Camp Liberty. Ashraf is relatively isolated and, frankly, less secure than Liberty will be with its UN monitoring and a frequent U.S. presence. We also hope the day-to-day issues of camp management can be worked out on the ground as, hopefully, confidence grows.
The good news is that we are finally entering a phase of implementing an agreement that’s been painfully negotiated and is understood by all sides. But implementation will take sustained cooperation and patience by all. The U.S. will remain closely engaged in all stages of this process.
So with that, let me take your questions.
QUESTION: So how many people in all are we talking about moving? You said a few hundred have gone back to Iran.
AMBASSADOR FRIED: The MEK says there are about 3,200 people at Camp Ashraf. Years ago, when the – in the early phases of the Iraq conflict, we identified about that number of people, but we don’t know how many people are there now. We don’t know how many have left.
QUESTION: Okay. But several hundred, you said, have gone back to Iran?
AMBASSADOR FRIED: We – yes. We believe several hundred have gone back to Iran voluntarily over the years, not recently. Recently, a number of people at Camp Ashraf have gone back to European countries where they have either citizenship or long-term residency. This has been relatively small in numbers, but it’s picked up in recent weeks.
QUESTION: And do you get the sense that some of these people that will be moving over to Liberty are going to want to move on further or that could be their --
AMBASSADOR FRIED: Well, they all want to move out of Iraq. That seems to be – well, let me back up by saying we don’t know actually what the residents of Camp Ashraf want. We know what their leaders say they want. And what they say they want is for them to leave Iraq in safety and security. There is some number – and estimates vary very widely – of how many will actually want to go back to Iran.
Our view is that if residents of Camp Ashraf want to go back to Iran, this is their right, but it has to be really voluntary and not, quote, “voluntary.” That’s why I mention that some hundreds have gone back already. According to international organizations, there is no evidence that they have been mistreated by the Iranians, but we can’t verify that independently for ourselves.
QUESTION: Have they – have the Camp Ashraf group – have they given you any sort of timeline that – you said the first 400 are going to be ready to move. When do you expect them actually to move? When is the camp going to be able to accept them? And do you have a sense that there’s going to be a clear follow-on from that, that they’re going to keep on moving more and more people? Or is this first 400 sort of a test group?
AMBASSADOR FRIED: In the last 48 hours, we have been heartened by the increased willingness of the leaders of Camp Ashraf and the MEK leadership in Paris to participate in this process. We believe that the first 400 are ready to move soon. The – as I said, former Camp Liberty has to be set up, the infrastructure has to be put in place, and this will – it’ll take, we think, at least several days for this to be done. But under the circumstances, we think that the 400 should move as soon as possible, and this should be followed up by more moves.
There are issues of how the new facility will run. Some of these issues were addressed in the MOU. But in reality, they can be worked out on the ground. It’s important now that people start leaving Camp Ashraf, which is really not a secure place, and move to a place where they can be processed by the UNHCR. So we very much hope that as many people will move out as fast as can be accommodated. The first 400 is a good start; it needs to be followed up.
QUESTION: Well, just on the resettlement issue. I understand in the past there was some demands on the part of the Camp Ashraf or MEK that they be done in groups, that they want (inaudible) all go together. What can you – just walk us through what the current understanding is of how and where they might go?
AMBASSADOR FRIED: You are correct that the MEK in the past made many demands, and it wasn’t until recent weeks that it started working with Ambassador Kobler in a serious way. We are very glad that they decided to do so. Late is far better than never, and it’s never too late to do the right thing. So they have done the right thing by working with Ambassador Kobler.
Specific to your question, the UNHCR does not do group refugee designations. They’ve made it clear that they are prepared look at them as individuals and to begin immediately to process them. We’ve also encouraged the people at Camp Ashraf to send in this – in the early group, in the group of 400 and other early groups, those with the strongest ties to the outside world - that is citizens of European countries, citizens of the United States, if there are more still there. We know of only two left there, but we – there could be more. If they send out those with the strongest ties, those will be the easiest to move out of Iraq. And it’s important to show the Iraqi Government and Iraqis and the people of Camp Ashraf this process can work all the way, meaning from Ashraf to former Camp Liberty and out of Iraq safely.
QUESTION: But isn’t there some risk in that, that if you’re starting with the easiest cases then the hard cases are just going to sit there, right?
AMBASSADOR FRIED: Well, the hard cases aren’t going to get any easier with – easier if you move them up front. Move – our view is move those who can most easily move. There are – in terms of numbers, there are a lot of unknowns. But if you start with a topline of 3,200 people, there is – you have to subtract the number of people who may have left. We don’t have it accounted for, so it’s 32 minus X. Then it is minus those will really want to go back to Iran, and there’ll be arrangements in place for them to do so. Then you take away the number of people with citizenship or strong compelling ties to foreign countries. Then you – what you have left is the group which will be interviewed individually for refugee status by the UNHCR. So hopefully those groups subtracted from the topline number will be as big as possible, but we just don’t know.
QUESTION: Is there a risk that you’re just moving – even if it’s Liberty as a more secure place, you’re just moving the problem a few miles?
AMBASSADOR FRIED: Well, there is no way that Ashraf was going to be the venue for the UNHCR interviews. And for reasons having to do with history and the history of the MEK in Iraq, there was no way that the Government of Iraq was going to allow a Camp Ashraf to exist as it was. So for those reasons, this move is critical to start the process in earnest.
QUESTION: Why do you think the MEK has changed its tune? Have you offered them anything? Like, will it be easier for them to get off the terrorism list if they cooperate?
AMBASSADOR FRIED: We have not offered them anything, but it is, I think – and I can’t read their minds, but I think that it became very clear that the United States was (A) concerned with their welfare and willing to put substantial efforts into this process, and (B) quite serious that we could do nothing if they were going to stand pat with maximalist, unachievable positions.
So I think they realized that they had a reasonable offer made by one of the strongest UN officials I’ve ever worked with, Ambassador Kobler. They had the full engagement of the U.S. Embassy in Ambassador Jeffrey. They had the strong interest of Secretary Clinton and other senior people in the U.S. Government. And I think they realized that now was the time to deal seriously.
QUESTION: Does the designation affect their migration status at all, their eligibility to go to any other country, let alone the U.S.?
AMBASSADOR FRIED: One of the enduring urban legends of this process is that the MEK’s current status as a foreign terrorist organization, so listed by the American Government, is in itself a great impediment to resettlement and that removing them from that list would suddenly make many more eligible that are not now eligible. That apparently, as it has been explained to me by those very familiar with American immigration laws, is not true.
The FTO designation process is quite independent from my office and what we’re doing. I haven’t participated in this, in the paperwork. We will – the United States will look at people at Camp Ashraf or future Camp – those who will be at former Camp Liberty on a case-by-case basis. The status of the MEK as a foreign terrorist organization is not, by itself, disqualifying to any particular individual. And removal of the MEK from that list, if it were to happen in the future, would not necessarily make eligible someone who is now statutorily ineligible.
QUESTION: So you can be a member of a foreign terrorist organization and not an American citizen and be given political refugee status in the United States?
AMBASSADOR FRIED: That isn’t what I said.
QUESTION: Right. But I’m asking --
AMBASSADOR FRIED: What I said was it is not – we are going to look at these people on an individual basis. They may have arrived at Camp Ashraf under all sorts of circumstances.
AMBASSADOR FRIED: The reason I’m hesitating and being very careful is because interpretation of our immigration laws is not my business at all, and the Department of Homeland Security has, let’s say, a very great deal to say on this subject. But I’ve – in my conversations with them, it’s clear that they’re prepared to look at individuals, but against, obviously, our immigration laws.
QUESTION: They’re going to look at an individual and then say, “No,” right?
AMBASSADOR FRIED: I’m not going to pre-judge how they look at individuals. I will say that people may have found themselves in Ashraf on a variety of circumstances.
QUESTION: Unwillingly, perhaps?
AMBASSADOR FRIED: I don’t want to characterize it that way or any way, but just say what I said.
QUESTION: Okay. Now the UNHCR – I understand when they do their interviews, they have to be private. So they won’t have like a MEK superior watching over them and hearing what they say. But this determination of which ones want to return to Iran – is that done somehow through a private interview process? Because then otherwise you might get the groupthink and the “don’t say you want to go back to Iran” and the numbers would be far smaller than you’d expect maybe.
AMBASSADOR FRIED: Without getting into the details of how individuals will be processed by international organizations, it’s not the U.S. doing it on the ground, I should point out. I would say that the UN and other international organizations are very well aware of the potential problem of, as you said, groupthink or group pressure, and they’re very well aware of the many reports about the atmosphere at Camp Ashraf and the character of that place. And I really shouldn’t say any more than that, but --
QUESTION: So they would be doing it, and – UN and international organizations would handle all of the --
AMBASSADOR FRIED: Well, it’s --
QUESTION: Even the part related to the Iran question, not --
AMBASSADOR FRIED: It’s not the United States doing it.
QUESTION: No, I understand, but --
AMBASSADOR FRIED: Everyone is aware of the problem you identified. I should say also that the MOU does contain an Iraqi commitment not to forcibly repatriate anyone to Iran.
QUESTION: Dan, have you seen these latest statements from the MEK in Paris? There was one this morning that says that they have information that the IRGC is going to launch some new rocket attacks tonight. Whether you’ve seen it or not, the other thing they say is that they’re asking for U.S. and UN monitors at the – at Camp Ashraf until it’s been emptied. Is that something from – at least from the U.S. side, is that something that you guys would be willing to consider, sending people to observe?
AMBASSADOR FRIED: The UN has said that it will monitor the former Camp Liberty. Not Ashraf; that’s not your question. But they’ll be at Camp Liberty on a 24/7 basis. The United States is prepared to mount a very robust monitoring – or I should say observation – a robust observation operation at the former Camp Liberty. It’s not practical, for a number of logistic and security arrangements, for us to be out with anything like that intensity at Camp Ashraf, which is one of the reasons people need to think seriously about moving fast.
QUESTION: Why? Why is it not practical?
AMBASSADOR FRIED: Well, it’s a lot farther away, for one thing.
AMBASSADOR FRIED: And the move – it is harder to move people back and forth. I don’t want to say much more because that involves the logistics of these kinds of things, but we’re going to be at Camp Liberty a lot – at former Camp Liberty a lot more than we are at Ashraf.
QUESTION: Wait, who – I mean, so in other words, you’re not – that’s not in the cards, this latest request for --
AMBASSADOR FRIED: That’s not in the cards. That’s not – that’s right. That’s not in the cards.
QUESTION: And who runs Liberty now? Is it the Iraqi army or --
AMBASSADOR FRIED: It’s an Iraqi – that’s right. We turned over Camp Liberty to the Iraqi military. They’re there. There have been some – a lot of discussions about the security arrangements in future Camp Liberty, and Ambassador Kobler has had these in some detail with his – with his Iraqi counterparts. It will be an Iraqi facility. It’s not going to be a kind of independent, self-governed, autonomous, extraterritorial facility, which is what Camp Ashraf has been for many years.
And the – Ambassador Kobler has had extensive and detailed discussions with both the people at Camp Ashraf – well, the leaders at Camp Ashraf and with – and in Paris. So the MEK knows very well what he is – what the circumstances will be and what the arrangements are.
QUESTION: Are these two Americans who remain?
AMBASSADOR FRIED: We know of two American citizens that are still at Camp Ashraf.
QUESTION: Are they high-level or more of the --
QUESTION: Okay. If they were to return, would they face possible prosecution?
AMBASSADOR FRIED: I can’t talk about any of that. Now there are some at Camp Ashraf – some of the leaders say there are more American citizens there, that there are more permanent residents. We know of just two that remain.
QUESTION: Have others come here?
AMBASSADOR FRIED: Yes. Recently, two have come here from – American citizens have come here from Camp Ashraf. And the – I think I can say that the Iraqi Government facilitated that, and it was – when they finally left, it was very smooth.
QUESTION: Are these Iranian-Americans or Americans of Iranian descent?
AMBASSADOR FRIED: I believe they are, but I’m not sure.
QUESTION: As far as you know, there isn’t anyone who’s a non-Iranian in Camp Ashraf, are – I’m just curious. You said there are – some people might have gotten there by very – in different ways.
AMBASSADOR FRIED: Different means, that’s right.
QUESTION: Can you --
AMBASSADOR FRIED: I just don’t know. I don’t think so. I have not heard reports. But I’m not trying to prove a negative. I don’t think so, but I don’t know.
QUESTION: And when you talk about it, can you just say, I mean, just for example, what kind of means would one have gotten there other than voluntarily going in?
AMBASSADOR FRIED: Sorry?
QUESTION: Well, I mean, like the North Koreans, are they running around kidnapping people and bringing them to Camp Ashraf? How do you get there involuntarily? How would one get there?
AMBASSADOR FRIED: There – well, let me refer you to some of the outside studies that have been written – the Rand Corporation report, for one. Take a look at that, or Human Rights Watch. They’ve described what they think are some of the problems. The MEK denies it. Right now, our concern is humanitarian and getting the people out of Ashraf over to Liberty, and then we’ll deal with the next set of really tough problems, which is repatriation/resettlement of these folks.
QUESTION: Some of those other reports that you mentioned have also discussed potential threats to the residents of Camp Ashraf may be internal rather than external. Without going into what your assessment is of where the threats are, is it the U.S. Government sort of understanding or feeling now that the immediate threats that they may have been facing to life and limb in the camp have decreased significantly? Are they not as at-risk as they were prior to this MOU being signed?
AMBASSADOR FRIED: Well, certainly the developments of the – the good developments of the past several days – that is, the signing of the MOU and the MEK’s expressed willingness to work with Ambassador Kobler on the basis of the MOU and move 400 people out – have the effect of lowering the temperature and putting us on an implementation track rather than a negotiation and imminent disaster track.
Now that’s better, right? That’s a better place to be, but implementation is not easy. It’s fraught with the problems we can imagine and probably some we can’t. So no one who’s working on this issue is putting their feet up and saying, well, job is now done, we can just – it’s just on autopilot. Far from it. It will take a lot of work, a lot of work.
QUESTION: Thank you.