WASHINGTON, Dec. 23 (UPI) – By RAYMOND TANTER – As U.S. troops head home from Iraq, Americans welcome them with open arms and take pride in others who risked their lives to support the U.S. side — direct hires like translators left behind plus Iraqi and Iranian supporters.
U.S. diplomats actively manage a crisis in the Iraqi Parliament between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s supporters against former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and Iraqiya, his multi-sectarian group of mainly Sunni and moderate Shiite Muslims. The crisis involves another major Sunni — Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who escaped to the Kurdish area because of an arrest warrant on apparently trumped-up charges he ran a death squad.
American envoys pay too little attention to Iraqi and Iranian facilitators of the wartime effort and needs them to counter al-Qaida of Iraq and Tehran’s efforts to destabilize Iraq.
Consider the contribution of Sunni tribal partners to a drop in violence during 2007-08. They added weight to the increase in American boots on the ground. Although the surge receives the credit for decreasing violence, an “awakening” among Arab tribes removed over 100,000 Sunnis — a political surge reinforcing the U.S. military surge.
U.S. Barack Obama, D-Ill., stated Oct. 22, 2008, in Time magazine that “The Sunni awakening changed the dynamic in Iraq fundamentally. It could not have occurred unless there were some contacts and intermediaries to peel off those who are tribal leaders, regional leaders (and) Sunni nationalists.”
My trip to Iraq in October 2008 validated Obama’s hunch: I met scores of Iraqi awakening tribesmen of Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha, a Sunni leader from Ramadi west of Baghdad. In exchange for reinforcing the American surge, they expected protection. But Washington is leaving such Sunni partners “in limbo.”
Other Iraqi friends who assisted the U.S. military are moderate Shiites from Iraq’s southern provinces. Sheik Walid told me he joined the fight against al-Qaida of Iraq after meeting with U.S. military forces in Camp Ashraf, home to Iranian dissidents in Iraq, the Mujahedin-e-Khalq.
Tearing a page from Obama’s playbook about interlocutors helping Iraqis join the American alignment against al-Qaida, Sheik Walid explained that his tribe had dozens of trilateral meetings with the U.S. military mediated by the MeK in Camp Ashraf.
While al-Qaida of Iraq has almost been decimated by U.S. Special Operations raids, there are indications of resurgence. Sunni tribes may be the best antidote to al-Qaida but might not be as trusting after being ditched by Washington and isolated by Baghdad.
Washington is also leaving its former Iranian partners in danger. While Sunnis and moderate Shiites are imperiled, Iraqis can blend into the culture, an option unavailable to Iranian dissidents. As opponents of Tehran, they are endangered outside the relatively safe confines of Camp Ashraf.
Even the camp is a risky place because Iraqi forces launched bloody assaults against these unarmed Iranian civilians in July 2009 and April 2011; Baghdad threatened to remove camp residents forcibly this month to put a coda on the U.S. withdrawal. Even though Iraq extended the timeline until mid-2012 for its move against the camp, its residents remain at risk.
The U.S. State Department’s plan, ostensibly to save the Iranian dissidents, trusts twice violated Iraqi assurances they would be treated humanely if they would leave the camp for a former U.S. base — Camp Liberty. The department wrongly blames MeK leaders in Paris of preventing Ashraf rank and file acceptance of this plan.
On the basis of my interviews with MeK leaders in Paris and European Parliament documents, I determined that since May 2011, the MeK leadership accepted an EU-brokered plan for Ashraf residents to be interviewed as individuals in a safe location for resettlement in third countries. They would accept any location the United Nations chooses, if it guarantees protection from and back to Ashraf, a position reiterated this week.
Eight years since the invasion and close of the U.S. military role, there is a need for a more assertive U.S. political role to create a “diplomatic umbrella” to shield moderate Iraqi parliamentarians, former U.S. direct hires but especially Washington’s Iranian allies.
The Iranian dissidents face the most serious dangers; consequently, Washington could put teeth in a demarche to Baghdad by privately conditioning a portion of economic assistance on whether Iraq consents to a U.N. team interviewing the Iranians at a secure location in a third country for resettlement outside of Iraq.
The American-supported Iraq relocation plan without protection for the residents of Ashraf is a toxic recipe for an avoidable humanitarian tragedy for which responsible American and Iraqi officials can be held accountable in international tribunals.
Raymond Tanter, an adjunct professor in the Government Department of Georgetown University, served on the National Security Council senior staff in the Reagan administration and is author of “Terror Tagging of an Iranian Dissident Organization.”