With the closing of Camp Ashraf, one of the most remarkable untold stories of American involvement in Iraq is concluding. With support from the United States and United Nations, the Iraqi government has begun moving long-time residents of Ashraf, the Mujahedin e-Khalq in Iraq’s Diyala province, to another location called “Camp Liberty,” potentially the first step in allowing them to leave the country. Composed mostly of Iranian dissidents, the population of Ashraf has consented to the transfer, fearing a crackdown by pro-Iranian elements in the Iraqi government that emerged with the U.S. military withdrawal.
Without much evident consideration, the international community has trusted this very government as the primary overseer of the relocation process. In response, a growing movement is speaking out against perceived irresponsible trust in the Iraqi government. In American circles, many are questioning the extent to which the U.S. is responsible for the saga of Ashraf’s imperiled residents, a problem that demands a deeper exploration of the base, its history, and its future.
Camp Ashraf: A Community of Exiles
Amidst the arid desert of Iraq’s Diyala province, an area stretching northeast from Baghdad to the Iranian border, Ashraf lies on the Tigris River. Despite the surrounding area’s impoverishment, the longstanding base contains schools, parks and trees, swimming pools, mosques, a museum, and a university. Ashraf is a self-sufficient, hermetically-sealed enclave amidst Iraq’s geopolitical chaos.
Ashraf’s origins however, lie across the border in revolutionary Iran. In 1965, Iranian leftists who strongly opposed the Shah founded a group known as the Mujahedin e-Khalq (MEK), or The People’s Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI). They heavily partook in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but found their humanitarian and democratic goals at odds with the Shiite Islamist regime that ultimately seized power. Amir Emadi, co-founder of campashraf.org, explained to the HPR that these Iranian citizens were severely persecuted for their political and social beliefs. Out of fear and a desire to continue their democratic struggle, they sought refuge in Iraq, establishing Ashraf in 1986.
Over the last two decades, Ashraf has grown into a community of 3,500 MEK members, sympathizers, and their families, playing an integral role in Diyala’s politics and society. Despite the camp’s partial isolation, Emadi detailed Ashraf’s importance to nearby Iraqi locals: its construction services, shops, museums, and park-like beauty drew those searching for otherwise rare residential and commercial amenities. Moreover, residents of Ashraf, Shiite Iranians under the patronage of Iraqi Sunnis, helped facilitate peace talks between local Sunnis and Shiites during bouts of sectarian violence. Compelled by these experiences, over 525,000 Iraqis showed their support in April 2011 for the residents of Ashraf, declaring, “We, the people of Diyala, view the PMOI as our esteemed guests, and consider their presence in Iraq and in Ashraf as a national imperative against the Iranian regime’s meddling.”
Under U.S. Occupation
Because of its anti-Iranian platform, the MEK had been friendly with Saddam Hussein and his Sunni regime. During the Hussein years, the Iraqi government provided most of the group’s funding, weapons, and protection, directly helping construct Ashraf. However, Hussein’s removal in 2003 quickly ended the MEK’s long standing protection and privilege. Residents were viewed as enemy targets by coalition forces, whose attacks resulted in several casualties and considerable structural damage. According to Emadi, the MEK deliberately did not retaliate, declaring their neutrality to demonstrate their cooperation with the U.S. military. By April 2003, the group signed a cease-fire agreement with the United States, handing over their arsenal of weapons in exchange for guaranteed protection. By 2004, the residents of Ashraf were granted “protected persons” status under the Geneva Convention, ushering in years of continued security and stability.
Since the Withdrawal
When the United States began withdrawing from Iraq, the security of Ashraf was gradually handed over to the new Iraqi government on the stipulation that residents would continue to be protected. However, upon the narrow re-election of Iranian-backed Nouri al-Maliki to Iraq’s highest office, the Iraqi government has dramatically reversed its policy, even conducting organized attacks against Ashraf. Emadi explains that if the Iraqi government could act without American encumbrance, it would immediately arrest and, “repatriate the residents to Iran, where they would face certain death for their political beliefs.”
Beginning in July 2009, conflict erupted when Iraqi forces entered the camp to establish police stations without the MEK’s consent, leading to a skirmish that killed nine residents. An additional 36 were detained and subjected to harsh beatings and torture. After a series of smaller attacks, April 2011 saw a full-fledged raid by Iraqi forces, leaving 34 dead and over 300 wounded. Although international observers responded negatively, scrutiny was mostly deflected when Iraqi officials claimed that security forces were responding to rocks thrown during a “riot.” Meanwhile, the Iraqi government has maintained a blockade of the camp, depriving its residents of basic services including proper medical care. Though humanitarian groups have begun analyzing the Iraqi government’s conduct for potential human rights violations, the process has been extremely slow and ineffective.
The Current Situation
According to Emadi, although the residents of Ashraf would prefer to remain, “they are not seeking a bloody confrontation with the Iraqi government.” Therefore, their only viable option is resettlement outside of Iraq. Last December, the Iraqi government and United Nations agreed to a phased plan that would transport the residents of Ashraf to a temporary location called Camp Hurriya, a deserted U.S. military base formally known as Camp Liberty. Residents did not anticipate, however, that their lives would once again be controlled by the Iraqi government. The U.S. State Department’s special advisor on Ashraf, Ambassador Daniel Fried, said that, “The Government of Iraq has committed itself to the security of the people at Camp Hurriya, and is aware that the United States expects it to fulfill its responsibilities.”
Reports from the first wave of 400 residents who were relocated on February 18th this year have demonstrated that Camp Liberty, contrary to its name, is merely a prison that the Iraqi government controls with brutal force. Iraqi police stations surround the camp’s enclosing wall, armed troops are on constant guard, and surveillance devices dominate the landscape. These 400 residents have publicly accused the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), whose responsibility is ensuring that the camp meets “international humanitarian standards,” of lying. Nonetheless, the United States has continued its support for closing Ashraf, trusting the Iraqi government to fulfill its humanitarian responsibility.
The MEK’s “Terrorist” Problem
To complicate the issue further, the MEK was added to the U.S. government’s Foreign Terrorist Organization list by the Clinton administration in 1997. Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School calls the move a “mistake.” Dershowitz tells the HPR that including the MEK on this list was a political strategy used by the Clinton Administration to “open [America’s] doors” to Iran. Published in 1995, the book titled Democracy Betrayed claims that the then-drafted State Department’s report on MEK is, “characterized by innumerable discrepancies, falsifications, and distortions of simple, unambiguous facts.” Furthermore, many American officials have acknowledged that the MEK has provided intelligence on the Iranian nuclear program and the Islamic Republic’s growing influence in Iraq, critical to shaping America’s security policy.
Promises to Keep
American advocates for Ashraf’s residents have been emphatic in calling for the U.S. government to maintain its protection. These backers charge America with two tasks to combat the situation: first, the U.S. must take MEK off the list of designated terrorist organizations. According to Dershowitz, their affiliation with this list has made European countries that would normally accept Ashraf’s residents as refugees reluctant or unwilling to do so. Perhaps Secretary of State Clinton’s recent remarks that, “MEK cooperation…will be a key factor in any decision regarding the MEK’s [Foreign Terrorist Organization] status” signal a shift in American policy. Second, they call on the United States to ensure that the evacuation from Ashraf proceeds rapidly and that the Iraqi government adheres to humanitarian standards. The livelihood and security of these residents depends on whether they can escape stifling repression.
Should the United States fail to act, it will abrogate the promise made to Camp Ashraf’s residents in 2003. Devastating consequences will result for an American-aligned group at the nexus of Iraq-Iran relations. To promote regional stability and human dignity, the international community would do well to pay greater attention.