BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq's government has promised not to forcibly evict an Iranian opposition group, the U.S. ambassador said in a broadcast interview aired Saturday, despite warnings from the prime minister that its members will not be allowed to remain in the country.
The presence of the People's Mujahedeen Organization of Iran has long been a source of friction between the U.S. and Iraq, which is under pressure from neighboring Iran to deport the group — branded as a terrorist movement by both Washington and Tehran.
U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said he understands the Iraqi government wants the People's Mujahedeen removed from its territory.
But Crocker said the Iraqis have promised to respect the human rights of the group's nearly 4,000 members — some of whom have been in Iraq since the 1980s.
"We've discussed this issue intensively with the Iraqi government," Crocker said in an interview aired Saturday by the U.S.-funded Alhurra television station.
"They have provided assurances that none of these individuals will be forcibly sent to a third country where they have reason to fear for their safety or well-being, and we know those assurances will be respected," Crocker said.
Iraq's Shiite-led government has long sought to get rid of the People's Mujahedeen, which fought alongside Saddam Hussein's forces during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. At the same time, many Iraqi Shiites fled to Shiite-dominated Iran and fought against Iraq.
Saddam allowed the People's Mujahedeen to establish a base north of Baghdad in 1986 to launch raids into Iran.
After U.S.-led forces overthrew Saddam in 2003, U.S. troops disarmed the People's Mujahedeen and confined its fighters to Camp Ashraf, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Baghdad
The issue took on new urgency when Iraq assumed greater sovereignty Jan. 1 under a new security agreement that gave the Iraqis responsibility for Camp Ashraf.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, said on Jan. 1 that the People's Mujahedeen can "no longer operate in Iraq," although he pledged he would not force its members back to Iran.
Despite those assurances, the People's Mujahedeen fears the Iraqis will eventually send its members back to Iran, where they could face severe punishment including execution.
Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Abbawi said the government has been working with international agencies to try to find an acceptable way to remove the group, including convincing other countries to accept the members.
"The Iraqi government's position is that members of the Mujahedeen Khalq are unwanted here and they should leave Iraq and their camp should be closed, but Iraq will not make them leave forcibly," he told The Associated Press.
"We do not want to put their lives at risk," Abbawi said. "Even for those who wish to return to Iran, we have already gained assurances from Iranian officials that they will face no danger and we have ongoing talks regarding this issue with Tehran."
The People's Mujahedeen was founded in Iran in the 1960s and helped followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini overthrow U.S.-backed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1979.
But the People's Mujahedeen fell out with Khomeini, and thousands of its followers were killed, imprisoned or forced into exile. The organization was added to the U.S. terrorist list in 1997, a designation the group insists is unfair.
Some Iraqi Sunnis believe the government's interest in expelling the People's Mujahedeen reflects the depth of Iranian influence among Shiite leaders.
Prominent Sunni lawmaker Saleh al-Mutlaq has said the organization should be used to counter Iran's "destructive role" in Iraq.
In another holdover from the Saddam era, the Iraqi government has announced the arrest of a Saudi Arabian militant accused of hijacking a Saudi commercial airliner and of criminal acts in Iraq.
The Interior Ministry said Ayish al-Harbi, who was arrested Dec. 17, took part in the hijacking of a Saudi plane en route from Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, to London in 2000. The plane landed in Baghdad, where the 103 passengers and crew were freed.
Saddam granted asylum to the two hijackers, identified at the time as Faisal al-Biloowi and Ayish al-Faridi. Saudi press reports said al-Harbi also was known as al-Faridi.
The two told reporters that they hijacked the plane to demand rights for the Saudi people and complained of human rights abuses, corruption and unemployment in the kingdom.