TIME – By Louis J. Freeh and Michael B. Mukasey
In the early hours of Friday, April 8, while Washington and the media focused on a possible government shutdown, the Iraqi army assaulted a camp of Iranian civilians, called Camp Ashraf, murdering at least 28 residents and wounding hundreds more. Though the Iraqi government has claimed that only three people were killed and describes the events as an attempt to reclaim farmland, a U.N. inspection team found 28 bodies, including those of women, and determined that most were shot to death. Iraqi officials have not allowed journalists to visit the camp.
Located in northwestern Iraq, 120 km (75 miles) from the Iranian border, Camp Ashraf has for more than 20 years been the home of 3,400 members of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK, also known as the PMOI), a key opposition group working against the Iranian regime. Camp Ashraf residents were promised legally protected status under the Fourth Geneva Convention in 2003 by senior U.S. commanders in Iraq. General David Petraeus, who served as deputy commander of allied coalition forces, has stated that the turnover of responsibility for Camp Ashraf to the Iraqi government was conditioned on a direct Iraqi assurance that the protected status of its residents would continue. Yet the brazen assault mounted by 2,500 heavily armed Iraqi soldiers on April 8 was not the first unprovoked assault against Camp Ashraf civilians. In July 2009, during a visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates to the country, the Iraqi army invaded the camp and killed unarmed residents. (See pictures of the U.S. troops in Iraq.)
On both occasions, the U.S. has lamented the violence but has failed to take effective action, perhaps in its haste to leave Iraq. Until recently, there was a U.S. military forward operating base called FOB Grizzly adjoining Camp Ashraf. But it has been closed, and this also brought the withdrawal of the U.N.’s observation mission. In the most recent assault, American soldiers were in or near the camp shortly before the attack but happened to withdraw before Iraqi forces proceeded. And sadly, in each case, President Obama and the Secretaries of State and Defense have responded lamely after these violations of humanitarian law by the Iraqi regime. A State Department statement acknowledged that the “crisis and the loss of life was initiated by the government of Iraq and the Iraqi military” but said that the U.S. government has done nothing more than “urge” the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki “to avoid violence and show restraint.” Mark Toner, the State Department’s acting deputy spokesman, helpfully added on April 12 that “we do need to be mindful that this is a sovereign matter for the government of Iraq” — a posture of deference that will hardly shake the al-Maliki government to its senses.
American inaction endangers our own security by casting doubt on our will to make good on our commitments. A promise was given to the residents of Camp Ashraf that their Geneva Convention status would be respected, but the U.S. is now acting like a vaguely interested spectator. (See pictures of President Obama visiting Iraq.)
The MEK is the political organization most feared by the ayatullahs and dictators who rule Iran. Unfortunately, the U.S. government, under both Republican and Democratic Administrations, has been complicit in handcuffing it. In 1997, Iran inveigled the Clinton Administration into putting the MEK on the State Department’s arbitrarily drawn Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list, with the expectation that this gesture would normalize relations with a supposedly moderate leader, then President Mohammed Khatami. This rapprochement did not happen. The Bush Administration failed to delist the MEK for fear that doing so would enrage Iran while our soldiers were fighting in Iraq. Even so, Iran surreptitiously provided weapons and IEDs for insurgent attacks against our troops.
The U.S. State Department still clings to this one-sided bargain, keeping the MEK on the FTO list, even though the E.U., in 2009, and the U.K., in 2008, removed the MEK from their own lists of proscribed organizations. This designation is used by Iran as an excuse for the ruthless torture and summary execution of MEK members, the medieval acts that drove the MEK into exile in the first place. Even now, Iran and Iraq are pointing to the U.S. terrorist designation as a purported excuse for assaulting Camp Ashraf residents.
The MEK is not a terrorist organization. It is widely acknowledged that the FTO process is badly flawed. North Korea is not on the list, and neither the IRA nor the Taliban was ever included. The public call for delisting the MEK and protecting the residents of Camp Ashraf has been joined by dozens in Congress, including the chairman and ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, as well as by a former U.S. Attorney General, a former National Security Adviser, two former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a former Secretary of Homeland Security, a former CIA director, two former U.S. ambassadors to the U.N., a former commander of Central Command and two former State Department counterterrorism chiefs. (Watch two veterans on their return to Baghdad.)
The most fanatical proponent of maintaining MEK’s FTO status is Iran. That it is a goal of Iran to destroy the camp and its residents is a matter of public record. Mouwafak al-Rubaie, the former national-security adviser to al-Maliki, stated that he intended to make life “intolerable” for Camp Ashraf residents. In February 2009, Iran’s supreme ruler, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, when disclosing an agreement with al-Maliki to “eliminate Ashraf,” publicly complained that Iraq was “moving too slow.”
Though in its past the MEK engaged in actions that we do not seek to endorse, for the past decade the MEK has ceased all military activities. It has given up all its weapons and has relied on the U.S. promise of protected-person status as civilians under the Fourth Geneva Convention. All the MEK residents at Camp Ashraf signed a written commitment at that time renouncing violence. The MEK’s leader, Maryam Rajavi, has published a 10-point MEK human-rights platform, which supports democracy, including religious and gender freedom. And the MEK has continuously shared invaluable intelligence about Iran’s nuclear-weapons program with the American government.
In 2003, when our troops entered Iraq, the U.S. government promised MEK adherents that if they gave up their weapons, we would protect them. The MEK was permitted to receive visits from family and friends and could leave the camp for medical care. (See scenes of Iraq going forward.)
All that has changed. We have broken our promise. Our government remains silent in the face of these blatant and brutal violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The State Department should immediately delist the MEK and recognize these courageous freedom fighters as the most important organized resistance to the Iranian regime. We have a legal and moral obligation to protect Camp Ashraf residents. The Administration must no longer do the bidding of Tehran in a futile fancy of reaching accommodation. Our refusal to act will only result in more martyrs for Iranian freedom.
Mukasey served as Attorney General of the U.S. from 2007 to ’09. Freeh served as director of the FBI from 1993 to 2001. Freeh and Mukasey have spoken on the issue of Camp Ashraf and the MEK at public discussions sponsored by the U.S. organization Near East Policy Research.