With the appointment of Jane Holl Lute, an American, as his special adviser for relocating the residents of Camp Hurriya, located outside Baghdad in Iraq, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is showing a willingness to take major steps toward resolving a situation that has become an increasingly sore point for the Iraqi, Iranian and American governments.
The new position for Holl Lute, who was born in 1956, is the latest in a career spanning posts at nonprofit, national and international arenas of international security, including the UN Secretariat, the United States Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Council as well as the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict. A former assistant secretary-general for peace-building support at the UN, Holl Lute returns to the world body from her tenure as the Obama administration’s first deputy secretary of homeland security, a position she held from 2009 to 2013.
With her extensive background in peacekeeping and multilateral diplomacy, connections in the Obama administration and access to local networks through the former job of her husband, Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, as “war czar” for Iraq and Afghanistan in the George W. Bush administration, Holl Lute brings to her appointment a level of experience and authority that may indicate a readiness of the US and the UN to take significant action to resolve the challenge posed to the international community by Camp Hurriya.
Formerly part of the American military-base network around Baghdad, the camp houses about 3,000 Iranian exiles, mostly members of the People’s Mujahadeen of Iran (MEK). The group was originally harbored and supported by the government of Saddam Hussein and includes an armed wing long implicated in sabotage, assassinations and bombings in opposition to the government of Iran, who consider the group to be a terrorist organization. Iran seeks the extradition of 166 members for trial, and the exiles in Hurriya have argued that they are now refugees and unable to safely return to Iran.
Despite being listed as a terrorist organization by the government of the United States and the European Union for years, the People’s Mujahadeen of Iran negotiated a cease-fire with occupation forces after the overthrow of Hussein and contends it has renounced violent tactics. Nonetheless, the current Iraqi government also considers the group to be a terrorist organization and has begrudgingly accepted its continued presence in the country, confined to former US military installations in conditions found by the UN Human Rights Committee to constitute “arbitrary detention.”
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (Unami) have been trying to secure permanent resettlement for Camp Hurriya residents for years. They have received commitments, however, only from Albania and Germany so far, accounting for only 311 of the more than 3,000 residents.
Though the MEK recently shed its terrorist designation from the US government and Europe, its position in Iraq has grown more tenuous since the American withdrawal at the end of 2011. Since then, the camp has come under rocket and mortar attack numerous times — most recently on Dec. 27, killing three and seriously injuring many more.
Violence in another camp, New Iraq (formerly called Ashraf), last September killed 50 members and resulted in the kidnapping of seven more, with the Iranian Republican Guard and Iraq-based proxies implicated in the attack. After the incident, the entire exile community was moved to Camp Hurriya but has pushed for a return to Ashraf, which was larger and had concrete structures.
Along with the long-running hostility of the Iraqi government to the MEK, the increasingly serious threat to the Iraqi government posed by the Sunni extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS) in Anbar Province may be compelling the government to strengthen ties with the Iranian regime, which is fighting ISIS by proxy in Syria.
Potential American-Iranian détente under the auspices of the negotiations by the P5+1 (permanent five members of the UN Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the US — and Germany) over Iran’s nuclear program most likely provides even more impetus for the international community to resolve the situation soon.
While testifying to US Congress on the P5+1 negotiations in October, Wendy Sherman, the US under secretary for political affairs and lead negotiator, answered a question from Senator John McCain (Republican of Arizona) on the resettlement and mentioned that resettlement was being complicated by MEK leadership in exile, who were pushing for resettlement of all residents in Hurriya en masse. Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (Democrat of New Jersey) then suggested that the residents be invited to resettle in the US.
Benjamin Foldy is completing his master’s degree in political science with a focus on international relations at McGill University in Montreal. He is also a graduate fellow at the Center for International Peace and Security Studies at McGill and formerly worked with the foreign policy team of US Senator Russ Feingold. Foldy writes on international peace and security issues, international relations theory and the international political dynamics of the Middle East and elsewhere.