WASHINGTON — Last September, Gen. David H. Petraeus told reporters in Baghdad that the United States had been assured by the Iraqi government that the 3,400 Iranian dissidents in a camp in eastern Iraq would continue to be protected after the Americans turned over responsibility for the camp to Iraqi forces.
Last week’s bloody melee between Iraqi police officers and the residents of the camp has not only raised fresh doubts in Washington about the worth of these assurances, but has also exposed just how little leverage American officials now have in a country they largely controlled for almost six years.
It has also forced the Obama administration to confront some of the thorny issues that bedeviled its predecessor: how to prevent Iraq from falling deeper under Tehran’s influence, and how to fashion a tough Iran policy amid delicate negotiations to dismantle the country’s burgeoning nuclear program.
Officials in Washington have wrestled for years over the fate of residents of the camp, known as Camp Ashraf. The Iranians are followers of the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran, a group that vehemently opposes Iran’s theocracy. The group remains on the State Department’s list of terrorist groups, but it has given United States intelligence agencies a stream of information about Iran’s nuclear program, American officials say.
From 2003 until the beginning of this year, American troops provided protection for Camp Ashraf, and American diplomats blocked Tehran’s demands for the dissidents to be sent back to Iran.
Some Bush administration officials feared that the government in Baghdad might crack down on the Iranian dissidents in Iraq once Iraqi troops assumed control of the country at the beginning of this year. Through the years, Iranian officials have continually demanded that the dissidents be returned to Iran, where many could be imprisoned, and aides to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq have publicly hinted that they would comply with Iran’s demands.
Officials in Tehran have called Tuesday’s police raid against Camp Ashraf “admirable.” But senior United States military and diplomatic officials said that as more details about the raid emerged, it appeared to be less a concerted crackdown on the dissidents than a police operation gone awry.
The Iraqi police were hoping to establish an outpost inside the camp, and tensions escalated into a violent clash when the dissidents resisted, Iraqi officials said. Several members of the People’s Mujahedeen were killed.
The American Embassy in Baghdad sent a delegation to meet with Iraqi authorities to remind them of their written commitment not to mistreat the dissidents or send them back to Iran. The Americans got approval to send a team of military medics into the camp to treat the injured Iranians. And the Americans have asked the Iraqis for a formal investigation of what went wrong in the raid.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has also weighed in with Iraqi officials about their obligation to respect the desires of the dissidents not to be returned to Iran against their will.
But a senior State Department official said there was some skepticism that the Iraqis were taking these concerns seriously.
“The Iraqis will tell you what you want to hear,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter. “That’s why we’re going to continue to watch the situation very closely.”
The concern that the Iranian dissident group could become a bargaining chip in Iraqi relations with Tehran created a rift in the Bush administration about whether to remove the group from the terrorism list.
The People’s Mujahedeen has been on the State Department list because of decades of terrorist activities, mostly against Iranian targets, it carried out beginning in the 1970s. It has been several years since the group has carried out an attack.
In the Bush administration’s final days, the State Department’s top counterterrorism official, Dell L. Dailey, pushed to have the People’s Mujahedeen removed from the list, which would have allowed members of the group to leave Iraq and resettle elsewhere in the Middle East or Europe. Without lifting the terrorist designation, it was unlikely any other country would accept them.
Some also argued that taking the group off the terrorism list would send a tough message to Iran as the Bush administration left office. Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state at the time, decided to keep the group on the list.
In a telephone interview last week, Mr. Dailey said that the Obama administration and the United Nations should intervene to protect the Iranian group’s members, especially the women and children.
“There needs to be a coordinated policy decision so the people aren’t abandoned there in central Iraq,” he said.
Yet Obama administration officials said they were unlikely to remove the group from the terrorism list anytime soon, and there is no sign that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is even considering such a step.
This move would no doubt further unsettle Washington’s relations with Tehran at a time when the Obama White House has made engagement with Iran a cornerstone of its foreign policy. Some in the White House and the State Department say privately that the administration’s efforts to reach out to Iran, even in the wake of its bloody post-election crackdown, have further complicated calculations about the dissident group.
“That’s what makes it so hard,” a State Department official said. “There’s too much uncertainty right now about what’s going on in Iran.”