WASHINGTON—When President Obama announced on Oct. 21 that all American combat troops would be out of Iraq by year’s end, no one in Iraq could be more impacted than the people residing in a little known refugee site called Camp Ashraf located 41 miles north of Bagdad, and 66 miles from the Iranian western border. With the U.S. pullout, these refugees are especially worried for their safety.
“Whatever dwindling influence the U.S. Government still retains in Iraq, it will evaporate completely once American forces exit [Iraq],” said Ambassador Mitchell Reiss in Washington, Oct. 28, at a briefing in support of the refugees.
The Maliki government of Iraq has stated it wants Camp Ashraf closed and the refugees deported by the end of the year. The Ashraf residents fear that they will be sent back to Iran, where they were an opposition group, and could be executed. Three Iranians visiting their sons in the camp, upon returning home, were each executed in Dec. 2010 -Jan. 2011.
In the last few days, Iraqi troops in larger numbers have been outside the gates, awakening the residents early in the morning with taunts broadcast through loud speakers. The residents remember April 8 this year, when this kind of harassment was a prelude to the Iraqi military firing on unarmed residents, killing 36 and wounding scores that outside observers called a massacre. There was also an attack in 2010 that killed 11.
“I talked to a very senior member of the Administration today who said, and I quote, ‘If we do not act and act soon, there will be blood on our hands,’” said General Hugh Shelton, 14th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Oct. 28 press conference.
Refugees for 25 years
For 25 years, Camp Ashraf has been the home of 3,400 members of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq or “MEK,” an opposition group to the current Iranian government. The group is also known by other designations: the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI) and the MKO.
Because MEK opposed the Iranian theocratic Shiite Islamic Republic, the Sunni Saddam Hussein permitted them in 1986 to base themselves in Iraq. When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, the MEK agreed to a cease-fire with the U.S. and turned in their weapons. In return, the U.S. granted the camp residents “protected persons” status under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
In 2009, the Americans turned over their jurisdiction to the Iraq government. The exiles are now at the mercy of Iraq’s Shiite-led government, which has been courting closer relations with their enemy Iran. It is noteworthy that while on a visit to Iran last June, Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani first made the announcement that Camp Ashraf would be closed by the end of this year.
Since the transfer, the unarmed refugees of the camp have suffered from harassment and incursions from the Iraq government.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been accepting petitions from residents of the camp requesting the granting of refugee status. This is only the first step of becoming “asylum seekers.” They need time for the UNHCR to make a determination and process each claim. And they want the UNHCR at the compound to do the processing and act as a buffer to the Iraqi armed forces.
Shelton said the UN needs to have a permanent, full-time monitoring force in place at Camp Ashraf, “to protect the Ashraf residents until a final disposition can be made for their future.”
U.N. envoy Martin Kobler said Nov. 3 at a news conference in Baghdad that he is trying to broker a deal to get more time and better access, according to the AP. At the news conference, an aide to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the Iraq cabinet could extend the deportation deadline, but made no commitment to do so.
Presently, journalists are banned at the compound and the UN has limited access.
At a congressional hearing, Oct. 31, the Chairwoman, House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for assurances that the administration was taking measures to ensure the safety and final resolution of the Camp Ashraf residents.
Secretary Clinton responded, “With respect to Camp Ashraf, which we deeply are concerned about, we know that there is an on-going and very legitimate expression of concern. We have elicited written assurances from government of Iraq that it will treat Ashraf residents humanely, that it will not transfer the residents to a country that they may have reasons to fear.”
One reason that the residents of Camp Ashraf have been harassed, killed and had difficulties moving to a third country is that MEK is listed by the Department of State as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). The supporters of the MEK say it was done for political reasons in 1997. The U.S. was hoping to engage the reform movement that was seemingly taking hold in Iran with the election of moderate Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, the predecessor of Ahmadinejad.
“The whole reason the MEK was kept on the list was an appeasement to Ahmadinejad, because we thought with false hope that this would allow the United States to provide some meaningful dialogue with a repressive regime,” said former Deputy Director of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service John Sano at the pro-MEK briefing.
Many former senior U.S. officials who have served in the administrations of presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton have called on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to delist the MEK.
Former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, former National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones, former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Hugh Shelton and Peter Pace, Former Attorney General Mukasey, former FBI Director Louis Freeh and ex-chairman of the Democratic National Committee Gov. Howard Dean have spoken publicly for the Iranian resistance group.
In Congress, there is bipartisan support, including Bob Filner (D.-Calif.), Dana Rohrabacher (R.-Calif.), Sheila Jackson Lee (D.-Tex.), Ted Poe (R.-Tex.), and John Lewis (D-Ga.)
These high-profile officials believe that a dialogue with the mullahs ruling Iran is futile. The regime continues with its nuclear program and sponsoring worldwide terrorism. Regime change is the only pathway to peacefully resolving our differences with Iran, they say. The MEK is perceived as a legitimate resistance movement to the Iranian regime. Removing the terrorist label will enable the group to legally raise funds in the U.S. and more easily relocate to other countries.
The U.K. and European Union removed the MEK from their terrorist lists in 2008 and 2009, respectively.
Louis Freeh said that when the Clinton administration put MEK on the list, he was director of the F.B.I. and they opposed it. The designation of FTO was retained during the Bush administration because we were told Iran would diminish the number of IEDs used against American troops in Iraq, which didn’t happen, he said on Fox news.
U.S. Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey said July 7 at a Congressional hearing on the April 8 massacre, “So long as MEK remains mistakenly designated as a foreign terrorist organization, the forces in the Iraqi government that favor accommodation with Iran … can use that designation to support their violence against the group.”
Freeh noted the irony of the State Department list of 49 terrorist organizations that doesn’t include the Haqqani Network or Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which have killed thousands of Americans troops, while an unarmed group is persecuted.
The State Department’s unclassified report on the MEK stresses the violence in the 1970s and 1980s but nothing is mentioned of the last decade. MEK says it has disarmed and renounced violence for more than a decade. Under the rules for being put on the FTO list, the State Department must reevaluate when circumstances change.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in a ruling in July 2010 said that the State Department did not use “due process” with the MEK designation and said that MEK should have had the opportunity to rebut the unclassified information used for its designation.
Daily, Shelton and Sano said at the pro-MEK briefing that they concluded there was no evidence of terrorism by the MEK.
Secretary Clinton acknowledged that the European Union had overturned the terrorist designation but said on VOA’s Parazit TV Show, Oct 26, “We’re still assessing the evidence here in the United States.”
Supporters of the MEK are growing impatient for Secretary Clinton to make a decision, with the clock ticking as the year winds down and the imminent threat of yet another massacre justified by the terrorist label.Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) said Oct. 28 to Clinton, “You’re not doing as much as you can. It’s been 500 days since the court has ordered us to reconsider this terrorist designation and that should be plenty of time to understand what the issues are.”