When the last U.S. troops leave Dec. 31, Iraqi forces will destroy Camp Ashraf, home to thousands of Iranian refugees belonging to the MEK. Geoffrey Robertson on the appalling human-rights tragedy unfolding.
The Daily Beast, 9 Dec 2011 - The time bomb that is ticking toward a new human-rights disaster is near Baghdad, in a 25-acre compound, where 3,400 refugees from Iranian religious fascism await the cruelest of fates.
Whilst nominally under United Nations protection, 36 of them have been killed by Iraqi forces already this year, and Dec. 31, the deadline for the U.S. troop pullout, is likely to be their deadline as well. The Iraqi government, under pressure from Iran, has announced that on that very same date it will demolish Camp Ashraf.
The camp houses the remnants of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK)—once described by Ayatollah Khomeini as “a syncretic mix of Marxism and Islam.” It started in Tehran universities in the late 1960s, attracting idealistic students who fought guerrilla battles against the shah’s secret police, but whose dreams of a secular state were soon dashed by the rule of the ayatollah. Hundreds were killed in student protests by his Revolutionary Guards, whilst thousands were arrested and then executed or (if lucky) sentenced to long prison terms.
Some escaped to Paris, but the fickle French expelled them in 1986 under pressure from Iran. They had nowhere to go but Iraq, where Saddam Hussein welcomed them to Camp Ashraf and used them as a “Free Iran” force. After the truce in 1988, Khomeini issued a secret fatwa ordering that all MEK supporters in Iranian prisons should be killed. In a bloodbath that ranks as the worst prisoner-of-war atrocity since the Japanese death marches at the end of World War II, thousands were summarily executed, under the orders of Ali Khamenei, then Iran’s president and now its supreme leader, and Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Residents carry a wounded man after clashes with Iraqi security forces at Camp Ashraf, an Iranian dissident camp, in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, in this April 8, 2011 photo provided by Camp Ashraf. , Camp Ashraf / Reuters
Camp Ashraf remained. Its residents were protected under the Geneva Conventions and were in any event refugees unable to return to Iran because of a well-founded fear—indeed, a certainty—that they would be executed both as traitors and as mohareb, or enemies of God. After the invasion in 2003, the U.S. formally recognized the MEK as having the status of “protected persons” under the Geneva Conventions. Their weapons were decommissioned by the U.S. forces, and every Ashraf resident signed a written agreement denouncing terrorism and rejecting violence. In return, the U.S. promised to protect them until their final disposition. They built roads and residential complexes at the camp, with educational, social, and sports facilities, and infrastructure worth millions of dollars.
Ironically, the Obama administration has given a free kick to Camp Ashraf’s enemies with its failure to lift its “terrorist” designation on the MEK.
On Oct. 7, 2005, the deputy commander of the U.S.-led coalition forces praised the residents of Camp Ashraf for “working together in the spirit of common humanitarianism,” and confirmed the coalition’s endorsement of their right to be protected from violence and their right as refugees not to be “refouled”; i.e., sent back to Iran. Their safety seemed assured, especially after the MEK did the world a service by revealing Iran’s secret nuclear facility at Natanz. That, of course, merely deepened the Iranian regime’s hatred of them, and it began intense diplomatic pressure on Iraq to close down Camp Ashraf.
Once the U.S. troop pullout began in 2008, the pressure started to have an effect. The Iraqi government formally demanded that it should take over security at the camp because the MEK was a “terrorist organization.” Gen. David Petraeus insisted that they were “protected persons” and U.S. forces would defend them. But Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced his determination to “put an end” to the MEK. As soon as all U.S. combat forces had left, he ordered a joint Army and police attack on the camp. In July 2009, U.S. military observers watched helplessly as Iraqi forces besieged and then attacked the camp, killing 11 residents (six were shot, the others beaten to death) and wounding hundreds. The operation was apparently intended to terrify the residents into leaving voluntarily, but instead it steeled their resolve.
Despite an international outcry, Maliki continued the siege of the camp, denying supplies of food and medicine. In early 2011 Iran stepped up its demands that the camp be destroyed. After Camp Grizzly, a nearby U.S. Army observation post, was disbanded, Maliki ordered another murderous assault in April, leaving 35 dead and more than 300 injured with gunshot and shrapnel wounds. Iran immediately congratulated Iraq for its “positive stance that strengthens mutual relations”—presumably a stance that was positive because it included killing innocent people that both governments disliked.