November 20, 2017

U.S. must protect dissidents in Iraq

One year ago this month, the peace at a refugee camp under the “protection” of Iraq’s government was shattered as Iraqi soldiers murdered 36 defenseless Iranian dissidents and left hundreds injured. Despite calls from the U.S. Congress, the European Union and the United Nations, there has been no independent inquiry into the incident. No one has been held accountable.

The reason goes into a dark, uncomfortable place. This was not the first deadly attack on the refugees, who are members of Iran’s Mujahedin-e-Khalq (PMOI/MEK), living in what is known as Camp Ashraf. There is a pattern of violence and intimidation against them at the hands of the Shiite officials of the Al-Maliki government, a government the U.S. paid mightily to train and set up. A cruel irony of America’s sacrifice is that a sphere of influence now exists between Baghdad and Tehran that includes efforts to crush the MEK, the Mullahs’ only viable and organized opposition.

The core members of the MEK – who promote a secular, democratic and a non-nuclear Iran – were hounded out of Iran and set up Camp Ashraf near Baghdad 26 years ago. In 1997, as the U.S. pursued a futile policy of dialogue with Tehran, the opposition group became listed as a terrorist organization worldwide, despite the fact that the group shared many values with the free world.

In 2003, U.S. forces assumed control of Camp Ashraf. A thorough investigation was conducted on the 3,400 residents and it was determined that not one terrorist was among them. The residents voluntarily disarmed to the U.S. and in return were given official “Protected Persons Status” and protection under the 4th Geneva Convention.

Iraq assumed responsibility for the camp’s security in 2009 and gave assurances that the refugees would be given “humane treatment.” But on April 8, 2011, the Iraqi Army launched its brutal attack. Video footage showed men and women being shot in the head at close range by Iraqi soldiers, or being run over by Humvees. Within days, Prime Minister Al-Maliki vowed to close Camp Ashraf completely, which would have sent the survivors into the desert to fend for themselves. Another atrocity was averted only after a massive international campaign compelled the U.N. to draw up an agreement with Iraq to assure the safety of Ashraf residents.

The Iranian opposition movement leader Maryam Rajavi agreed for the residents to move to a new home, an abandoned U.S. military base known as Camp Liberty. Some 1,500 have already relocated there. However, reports from inside the camp describe conditions as prison-like, and not meeting the bare minimum humanitarian standards. The residents fear another disaster is looming around the corner.

The issue at hand is now more than a humanitarian crisis; the people scattered between Camps Ashraf and Liberty represent the only viable check on the power and ambitions of the Iranian regime. There is however, one simple way the U.S. State Department can stop this persecution: delist the MEK as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.

Why, at a time when policy options for rolling back Tehran’s nuclear program are dwindling, and when Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is condemning Iran for “exporting terrorism,” would unleashing the opposition be off the table? Why would the U.S. government go so far as to investigate and harass American former senior officials who have spoken out against the unwarranted designation of MEK? That the U.S. is dragging its heels over delisting them is inexplicable, given that the United Kingdom and European Union removed the MEK from the blacklist more than three years ago.

The U.S. and the U.N. need to expedite the process of relocating these vulnerable men and women to third countries and getting the MEK into the struggle to contain Iran. The U.S. needs to recognize the humanitarian crisis and the strategic value of the Iranian opposition before it is too late. 

Brig. Gen. David Phillips (ret.), is a Missouri resident and the former chief of the Military Policy School at Fort Leonard Wood and former commander of all police operations in Iraq, including Camp Ashraf.
Col. Wesley Martin (ret.), served as the senior antiterrorism/force protection officer for all coalition forces in Iraq and was the first Col. in charge of Camp Ashraf.
Lt. Col. Leo McCloskey (ret.),was the Commander of Joint Interagency Task Force at Camp Ashraf until January 2009.