The United States has welcomed a freshly inked agreement between the United Nations and Iraq on the fate of a group of Iranian exiles who have been living for years in northeastern Iraq.
The deal comes with pressure building for the closure of Camp Ashraf, a facility created in the 1980s where 3,400 or so Iranians hostile to Iran's clerical regime have been sheltering.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement that the deal marks an "important step toward a humane resolution to the ongoing situation" at Camp Ashraf.
The statement said Washington is "encouraged by the Iraqi government's willingness to commit to this plan," and said the U.S. expects Iraq to fulfill all its responsibilities in the pact, particularly with respect to the safety and security of the camp's residents.
Clinton added that officials of the U.S. Embassy in Iraq would visit a new relocation site for the Iranians "regularly and frequently" to check on the progress of the relocation effort.
In a statement late on December 25, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq said the agreement establishes a process under which Iraq will move the residents to a temporary location.
It said that at that temporary location -- which was not named -- The UN's refugee agency will then work with the exiles to determine their refugee status, with the aim of eventually resettling them outside Iraq.
"A lot of European countries adapted strong positions about the residents of Camp Ashraf, which were far away from the truth -- they directly contacted the camp residents and got false ideas of them being threatened and their rights being violated by the Iraqi government," Kamel Amin, spokesman for the Iraqi Human Rights Ministry, said after the agreement was announced. "Now after the new agreement with the UN, I believe that this issue will be solved soon. The Iraqi government is willing to solve the issue peacefully without violating the human rights of their camp residents."
The statement described the agreement as seeking a "humanitarian and peaceful resolution of the situation." It said Iraq's government is committed to ensuring "the safety and security of the residents" at the new temporary location.
An original deadline of December 31 had recently been extended by Baghdad into next year, but Iraq's government has repeatedly objected to harboring the Iranian exile group since it assumed responsibility for the camp's security two years ago.
Mahmoud al-Kharabsheh, head of the Arab Counsel in Defense of Ashraf, said he hoped the agreement was a first step toward resolving the issue.
"This is the less bad solution delivered by the Iraqi government, which was agreed by the UNAMI (United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq) and the residents of the Camp Ashraf," Kharabsheh said. "We wish that this becomes the first step to solve the crises. We hope the European countries help in resettling them where they can live in peace and continue serving their people."
Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein established Camp Ashraf when he allowed the rebel Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (or MKO, aka People's Mujahedin of Iran) to set up the camp during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
Tehran regards MKO members as terrorists.
U.S.-led forces assumed responsibility for the camp after the invasion to oust Saddam Hussein began in 2003, but handed over control of the camp to Iraqi security forces in 2009.
More than 30 people were reported killed in a raid on the camp by Iraqi security forces in April, highlighting the sensitivity of the exiles' fate.
The Iraqi government has repeatedly said it does not want the Iranian exile group on its territory. But Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki recently agreed to extend into next year a deadline for the camp to close. The Iraqi government had earlier set a deadline of the end of this year.