WASHINGTON — Supporters of an Iranian dissident group based in Iraq called on the Obama administration Thursday to restore U.S. military protection for the exiles, who were attacked by Iraqi security forces on July 28.
They also urged the Iraqi government to release 36 exiles who were taken from the camp during the melee in which 11 Iranians were killed — shot, beaten or run over by military vehicles of Iraqi forces.
Throughout that confrontation, American soldiers who once protected the Iranian opposition group stood by.
At a news conference organized by affiliates of the People’s Mujahedeen Organization of Iran, which the U.S. government calls a terrorist group, a retired U.S. general and an Army Reserve officer faulted the U.S. for arguing that it is not obligated by the Geneva Conventions to protect the exiles.
The exiles live in a compound called Camp Ashraf in Iraq.
“Why we think we can simply shirk that responsibility or ignore it, I don’t understand,” said Gary Morsch, an Army Reserve colonel who was stationed at Camp Ashraf as a battalion surgeon in 2004 and maintains close ties with the exiles there. “I don’t know why we won’t intervene.”
The U.S. military guarded the camp in the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 under an agreement that made its 3,400 residents “protected persons” under the Geneva Conventions. The military stopped observing the agreement after a new security accord with the Baghdad government took effect in January.
Responsibility for the camp then passed to the Iraqi government, which the State Department says promised not to use force against the group. A small contingent of U.S. military police still monitors the camp, but the military said they were under orders not to intervene in the July 28 confrontation.
Paul Vallely, a retired two-star Army general who is associated with a Washington-based group that supports Iranian dissidents’ goal of overthrowing the Tehran regime, told the news conference that U.S. forces showed a “lack of resolve” by not intervening in the deadly melee in July.
The State Department has said the U.S. is not in position to intervene because Iraq is now a fully sovereign state.
“Bottom line is, Iraq has sovereignty over its own territory, but we’ve obtained assurances that Ashraf residents will not be abused or transferred against their will,” State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Thursday.
Kelly said the Iraqi government’s stated reason for entering the camp with force — to install a police station in Ashraf — was “appropriate and in keeping with its obligation to provide security in Ashraf.”
Kelly said Ashraf residents “staged violent demonstrations to oppose Iraqi Security forces lawful efforts to enter the site. There were casualties on both sides of the confrontation, and we have asked Iraqi authorities to investigate allegations of excessive force.”