WASHINGTON -- Hundreds of people rallied outside the White House on Monday to protest U.S. plans to give the Iraqi government control of a camp housing Iranian dissidents, a step they said could lead to a humanitarian disaster.
The demonstrators, who included about 200 Iranian Americans from California, said the move would put camp residents in danger of being expelled to Iran, where they could face torture and death.
"I am terrified of what will happen to those living in the camp," said Babak Dadvan of Woodland Hills. The activists, who waved green, white and red Iranian flags and chanted into portable microphones, have traditionally supported the Bush administration's hard-line approach toward Iran. But at Monday's rally, there was plenty of criticism for the U.S. government.
"It is not fair," said Mojtaba Rassi of San Diego. "The American government has an obligation to protect these people. They can't just leave them and go."
The United States has guarded Camp Ashraf, about 40 miles north of Baghdad, since 2003. The camp houses more than 3,000 members of the Iranian rebel group Mujahedin Khalq, which agreed to disarm in exchange for protection.
Although the group, also referred to as the MEK, is considered a terrorist organization in the U.S., Iraq and much of Europe, its members in Camp Ashraf are protected under the Geneva Convention, which bans extradition or forced repatriation of people who could face torture, persecution or death.
"Whenever somebody is transferred or repatriated, the authority in charge should make sure the person is going on his or her own free will," said Dorothea Krimitsas, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, one of several human rights groups following the situation.
But harboring members of the MEK, which is the largest Iranian opposition group, poses a difficult situation for officials in Baghdad, who regularly talk with their Iranian counterparts.
Last week, Iraqi government spokesman Ali Dabbagh announced the government's "intention to impose full sovereignty over the area of Camp Ashraf." It will "deal with members of the organization in a humane way according to existing international laws," he said.
Those who rallied near the White House were skeptical.
"Here is the problem," said Alireza Jafarzadeh, a well-known Iranian dissident who heads a national security consulting firm in Washington. "Once the U.S. forces leave, this would invite Tehran to attack Camp Ashraf, which they have not done up until now because they would be attacking America. But once the U.S. moves out, it's a totally different ballgame."
U.S. forces are preparing for a gradual transfer of security at the camp, but a specific date has not been set, according to Navy Lt. Patrick Evans, a Multi-National Force spokesman.
"We have received assurances from the government of Iraq that the residents of Camp Ashraf will be treated humanely," he said. "We will continue to engage closely with the government of Iraq on this issue."
The State Department designated the MEK a terrorist organization in 1997 for its role in the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, assassination of U.S. military personnel and civilians, and other acts of violence. According to a 2007 State Department report, it was also allegedly involved in Saddam Hussein's 1991 massacre of Iraqi Shiites and Kurds.
This May, however, the British government officially removed the group from its terrorist list, saying it could find no evidence that the group had engaged in or claimed responsibility for acts of violence since 2001 or 2002.