Associated Press
Iraqi police stand guard outside the opposition group's camp northeast of Baghdad.
We don't want to hand them over to Iran. We don't want to kill them. We don't want to oppress them and we don't want to starve them. But their presence in Iraq is illegal and illegitimate.

BAGHDAD — Under international pressure, the Iraqi government on Wednesday backed off its threat to close a refugee camp holding 3,400 Iranian exiles by the end of the month.

Instead, Iraq said it will shut Camp Ashraf sometime in January and insisted that all its residents must leave the country by April. It promised not to deport anyone to Iran.

A spokeswoman for the exiles responded positively to elements of the plan and insisted that the U.S. and U.N. guarantee their safety. The extension of the deadline raises the likelihood of a peaceful resolution to the standoff, heading off a possible bloodbath that many international observers have feared.

The future of Camp Ashraf, home to exiles dedicated to the overthrow of the Iranian regime, has been a sticking point for Iraq's Shiite-led government, which counts Iran as an ally.

The armed People's Mujahedeen Organization of Iran first moved to the camp during the regime of Saddam Hussein, who saw the group as a convenient ally against Tehran. U.S. soldiers disarmed them during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been determined to close down the camp, located in barren terrain northeast of Baghdad about 50 miles from the Iranian border. His government considers the camp, which the exiles vigorously defend with a sophisticated public relations operation in the West, as an affront to Iraq's sovereignty.

"We don't want to hand them over to Iran. We don't want to kill them. We don't want to oppress them and we don't want to starve them. But their presence in Iraq is illegal and illegitimate," al-Maliki said during a press conference Wednesday, three days after the last U.S. soldiers left the country.

The Iraqi government had vowed to shut the camp completely by the end of December and move the residents to another location. That raised concerns that forcibly removing them would result in violence, and the United Nations has been trying to broker a deal.

The U.N. has said that at least 34 people were killed in a raid on the camp by Iraqi security forces last April.

On Wednesday, Iraqi spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the government had worked out a plan to move up to 800 of the residents to a new facility in Baghdad by the end of December. That facility is a former American military base called Camp Liberty.

Al-Dabbagh said the rest of the residents would be relocated as soon as possible in January. Once they have all moved, Camp Ashraf would be closed. He said all the camp's residents would then be relocated outside of Iraq by no later than April.