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Iraq’s Camp Ashraf: “Frenemies” of the West

by Taylor Hom 

Dear Hillary,

My name is Shaghayegh.

I am 14 and live in Camp Ashraf, Iraq.

I am afraid I am going to be murdered…

Accompanying this letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is a photo of Shaghayegh. With dark hair and bright eyes, she smiles at the camera with a tilt of the head. Dressed in a white jacket, flower headband, and square glasses, the picture of the girl looks out of a middle school yearbook.

But, according to the U.S. State Department, Shaghayegh is a terrorist.

The letter continues as a petition asking Clinton to remove an Iranian opposition group—the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK)—from the U.S. list of terrorist organizations.

Shaghayegh is one of the 3,400 Iranian members living in the little known Iraqi based refugee site called Camp Ashraf. The camp members applied for United Nations refugee status last week, in light of a December 31st deadline given by the Iraqi government that they abandon their homes and leave Iraq for good. With expulsion from Iraq looming, the question of where Ashraf members will relocate and how quickly remains crucial. Struan Stevenson, a member of the European parliament who worked with members of Camp Ashraf, says that if the U.N. grants them refugee status, it could aid their relocation efforts, possibly to countries in the European Union.

Ashraf is located in Iraq 66 miles from Iran’s western border and is home to members, sympathizers, and families of the MEK. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein granted the group refuge in Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

The MEK is controversial after decades of fighting with the Islamic regime in Tehran and its association with Saddam Hussein that lasted until the 2003 U.S. invasion. The group fought against the despotic reign of the Shah until the 1979 revolution and now opposes the theocratic tyranny of Ayatollahs and President Ahmadinejad.

“The MEK is a group of Iranians that have the courage to fight against their oppressive government, being persecuted like terrorists,” says an Iranian-American who participated in Ahmadinejad protests outside of the United Nations general assembly this past September, who envisions a democratic and secular Iran, free from clerical rule.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, the MEK immediately declared neutrality and agreed to a cease-fire with the U.S. In return, the U.S. granted the camp residents “protected persons” status under the Fourth Geneva Convention. But now unarmed for almost a decade, the camp remains on the list of U.S. terrorist organizations.

Even with the refugee appeal, the members of Ashraf are in immediate danger, and the international needs to act swiftly. The Iraqi government has proven that the December 31st deadline is not an empty threat, and it could act before that. After the U.S. transferred control of the camp to the Iraqi government in 2009, the camp suffered from a number of vicious assaults by the Iraqi government, whose relationship with the Iranian government has greatly improved since the fighting in the 1980s killed almost a million people.

The MEK has never had the support of the Iraqi people, but was rather seen as a convenient political alliance bonded by a common enemy during the 1980s. Now, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, looking to rid his nation of any of Saddam Hussein’s former partners, has ruthlessly targeted the camp members. By harassing the members of Ashraf, he hopes to bolster his popularity in Iraq while winning a favorable nod from the neighboring Iranian regime. In July 2009 and April 2011, the Iraqi Army launched brutal attacks on defenseless camp members, murdering an estimated 47 residents and injuring over 500.

“The people in these camps live in constant fear with no means of protection besides their own bodies,” says Dr. Zahra Sadeghpov of Association of Iranian-Americans in NY. “The drones and weapons used to torture the camp members are supported by the U.S. while Iranian people are hung by cranes in the street.”

The U.S. responded to the slaughter by quietly reprimanding the Iraqi government with the meek suggestion they avoid violence. With the distinction of “terrorists,” members of Ashraf are not eligible for international aid. When the Iraqi government assumed control of the area in 2009, they cut off medical support for the community, allowing further deaths due to lack of health services. The Iraqi government claimed the April 8th attack was an attempt to “reclaim farmland” with only three casualties. Though the government has banned journalists from visiting the camp, a United Nations inspection team found 28 bodies shot to death. Shaghayegh’s 20-year-old sister was one of the civilians killed in the attack.

In 1997, President Bill Clinton put the MEK on the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization list. The groups’ actions did lead to Iranian civilian deaths in the 1980s, though the Clinton’s decision was largely interpreted a gesture of good will to the supposedly moderate President Mohammed Khatami, the predecessor to Ahmadinejad. The group was never taken off the terrorist list due to fears that it would anger the Iranian government while U.S. soldiers fought in neighboring Iraq. Of course, Clinton’s political maneuver didn’t stop the Iranian government from providing weapons for insurgent attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq.

Having retired from any armed opposition for over a decade, the MEK isnow one of the five organizations composing the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a political coalition founded in 1981 with the aim of unseating the religious dictatorship of the mullahs. Today, the NCRI acts as a parliament-in-exile in France, envisioning a democratic, pluralist, and secular Iran.

Tensions between the U.S. and the Ayatollahs are again on the rise after the U.S. accused Iran of attempting to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the U.S. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei responded to the U.S. by happily predicting the downfall of American capitalism. As the Iranian regime led by President Mohammed Ahmadinejad antagonizes the US with its violent rhetoric and quest for nuclear weapons, the MEK have reportedly provided crucial intelligence about the Iranian nuclear program. But not even a common enemy has been enough for the U.S. to reassess its relationship with the MEK.

Meanwhile, the distinction of “terrorist” slapped arbitrarily on the group serves as a justification for brutal assault by Iraqi forces. Human rights activists argue that both the Iranian and Iraqi governments wash their bloody hands under the pretense that these people are “terrorists.”

These camp residents are a political paradox, labeled both “protected citizens” and “terrorists,” they are a “frenemy” of the West, united against a common enemy while fellow MEK members outside of Ashraf are liable to persecution for being terrorists.

The American Foreign Terrorist Organization system is a mess. While Pakistan’s Haqqani Network remains off the list, a persecuted and unarmed group of civilians stays on it. The process of labeling a group as a “terrorist” is clearly political, but its implications are real, and often have devastating consequences.

Children like Shaghayegh should not fear murder because of the spinelessness of U.S. politics. Residents of Ashraf are more scared than ever about the December 31 deadline and an increasingly hostile Iraqi government. The relocation of thousands is not a process that can be completed in haste, and the United Nations has asked the Iraqi government to extend the deadline by three months.

For its part, the Iraqi regime has shown no sign they’ll heed their own December deadline, since they have already attacked the camp twice before December 31. It is crucial that international forces, especially the U.S., speak up now before the Iraqi military assaults Camp Ashraf residents again.

Many activists and experts believe that the Iranian people could be the next members of Arab Spring, rising up and pushing out the mullahs for a more democratic government. The MEK and their political arm—the NCRI—could be part of the road to a democratically accountable government, and the international community needs to support them.

“Like Syria, Egypt, and Libya, the Iranian people deserve the chance to topple their oppressive government. It has been too long,” says Sadeghpov. 

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Taylor Hom is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal. 

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Phototrope]

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