Iraq's government voted Monday to shut down a camp of Iranian dissidents and move them out of the country by year's end, following a deadly raid on the compound by government forces last week.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Iraq will not deport the People's Mujahedeen Organization of Iran back to Iran, but would not say what might happen if the group refuses to leave their sprawling desert compound in Iraq's eastern Diyala province where they have lived for decades.
"They need to leave Iraq by the end of the year. Iraq is not the choice for them," al-Dabbagh said Monday night, shortly after the Cabinet meeting ended.
"We have to find a nation where they can go, and we will look to the U.N. to help," al-Dabbagh said.
Shahin Gobadi, the Paris-based spokesman for the People's Mujahedeen's political wing, said the camp residents are willing to move to the United States or countries in the European Union if those governments will give them asylum.
"We have no intention of staying in Iraq, but there has been no response," Gobadi said. He said the group is also willing to return to Iran but only if it is certain they will not be attacked or oppressed by the government in Tehran, which considers them a terrorist organization.
U.N. observers in Baghdad are still being prevented by the Iraqis from going inside Camp Ashraf following the pre-dawn clashes Friday between Iraqi soldiers and the exiles that hospital officials in a nearby town said left at least 12 dead and 39 exiles wounded.
Five soldiers also were hurt in the melee that began after the Iraqi army reinforced their forces outside the camp, which the residents took as a sign of aggression and responded by throwing rocks and lunging in front of military vehicles.
The U.N. spokeswoman in Baghdad, Aicha el-Basri, on Monday said the agency was planning to enter Camp Ashraf this week. The Iraqi army also has blocked journalists from the settlement, and briefly prevented the U.S. military from helping the wounded inside.
U.S. Col. Barry Johnson, a spokesman in Baghdad, said military medics have since been let in but would not describe the conditions inside the camp or verify the number of dead or wounded. The camp's leaders put the death toll Monday at 34, with more than 300 wounded, although those numbers could not be immediately verified. The Iraqi army has denied that anyone was killed.
The raid was roundly denounced in Washington and London, and by U.N. officials in Geneva, although it was praised by Tehran.
The Shiite-led Iraqi government, and particularly Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has long sought to expel the Iranian exiles who were given sanctuary by former dictator Saddam Hussein. Their presence also has been an irritant between Baghdad and Tehran, as the two governments strengthen ties.
The People's Mujahedeen seeks to overthrow Iran's clerical leaders, although the group says it renounced violence in 2001 after carrying out bloody bombings and assassinations in Iran in the 1980s.
In Geneva, U.N. High Commission on Refugees spokesman Andrej Mahecic said the Ashraf residents could individually apply for refugee status, which would help them find a permanent home. But to do so, each exile would have to personally renounce violence as a means of achieving their goals _ which he said the Ashraf residents have refused to do.
Some exiles have renounced violence and achieved refugee status after leaving Ashraf, Mahecic added.
"The persons who remain in Ashraf today have never taken advantage of this procedure," he said.
It's not clear if the residents are still considered protected persons under the Geneva Conventions, as they were until late 2008, when Baghdad and Washington signed a security agreement that limited U.S. authority in Iraq.
If they are, the U.S. would be required to the intervene with the Iraqi government on the exiles' behalf. The U.S. says it no longer has that authority, but the Ashraf residents and their lawyers in Washington dispute that.
A spokeswoman from the International Committee of the Red Cross, which oversees whether nations are complying with the Geneva treaties, declined to clarify.
Associated Press Writers Saad Abdul-Kadir in Baghdad and Frank Jordan's in Geneva contributed to this report.