With deadline looming to close MEK's Camp Ashraf in Iraq, what next?

Camp Ashraf, home to militants opposed to the Iran regime who are also unpopular in Iraq, faces year-end closure. Some fear there could be violence and even suicide, but there are signs of a negotiated settlement.

By , Staff writer

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    Iranian dissidents hold banners as they protest in Brussels, Dec. 1. The protesters called for prevention of compulsory displacement of the Camp Ashraf residents inside Iraq and the annulment of the deadline for closure of Camp Ashraf by the end of December. Camp Ashraf, an enclave in eastern Iraq that houses more than 3,000 people, many of whom are dedicated to overthrowing the government of Iran.
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The fate of some 3,200 anti-Iran militants on the US terrorism list hang in the balance, as an end-of-year deadline looms to close Camp Ashraf in Iraq.

American officials have expressed fears that the leadership of the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK/MKO) – which US government reports frequently describe as a cult – may order the massacre of their followers, rather than permit the peaceful disbandment of Camp Ashraf, which would deprive the MEK of one of its most powerful assets.

But Maryam Rajavi, the MEK's self-styled "president elect" of Iran, said today the group accepted "in principle" a UN plan – if there were "minimum" US and Western guarantees of safety – to relocate members to a former US base near Baghdad airport for individual processing and possible resettlement as refugees.

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The Shiite-led government of Nouri al-Maliki, which has close ties to Iran, has made clear its determination to close the base set up by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s.

In Iran, the MEK are widely despised as traitors for fighting alongside Iraqi forces in the Iran-Iraq War. In Iraq, few also have sympathy for the group, which Mr. Hussein deployed to help crush a popular Kurdish uprising in 1991.

"How shall we accept the killers of our sons?" asked Adnan al-Shamani, a Shiite lawmaker speaking at a recent government-sponsored conference in Baghdad to protest the MEK presence.

The decision to close the camp was "supported by the majority of parliament and the majority of the Iraqi people," said Mr. Shamani. "No one has the right to impose their will on Iraqi land, except Iraqis."

A negotiated solution?

United Nations and US officials appear to have made some progress in talks with Mrs. Rajavi, who is based in Paris.

Her husband and MEK leader Massoud Rajavi went into hiding in 2003, though several former Ashraf residents claim to have seen him at the camp as recently as 2007, and that he continued to address them by video link until seven months ago.

"After much regrettable stalling, the MEK finally seems ready to engage seriously," a US official told the Inter-Press Service, a news agency, in Washington. The MEK has backed off from "maximalist positions" in recent days, the official said, but "we're still hearing talk about martyrdom and dying."

The risks of violence are high, and come from both sides. Clashes erupted at Camp Ashraf in April, leaving 34 MEK members dead, when Iraqi forces took control of a portion of the sprawling site. The MEK has a long anti-American history, and as a revolutionary group killed at least six US military advisers in Iran before the 1979 Islamic revolution.

In the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, some Pentagon officials saw the MEK as a potential weapon against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Repeated calls by Iraqi officials since 2004 to disband the camp have until now been ignored.

But with the complete withdrawal of US forces from Iraq this week, options for the MEK have narrowed.

"From their first day in Iraq, [the MEK] accepted to be a tool of the intelligence and security of the former regime, especially against Iran," Saeed Al-Jayashi, a representive of Iraq's former National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie, told the recent Baghdad meeting of Iraqi officials, tribal sheikhs, and Iranian families of those in Camp Ashraf.

"Any terrorist group that wants to stay in the country is not looking for safe haven, but a base for terrorist attacks," said Mr. Jayashi. "Western societies talk about human rights; I ask them to save these people from unfair separation from their families, and the strange life in this camp."

"How shall we talk to the Iraqi victims of this organization? We should stand in one line to deport them," he added. "Their choice is to go to Iran or choose another country; you can't stay in Iraq."

Protests

Several such meetings, and a string of anti-MEK protests in Baghdad and at the Ashraf gate, project the same message.

"No to an extension. Yes to deporting the terrorist group," reads one banner. Family members holding framed portraits wore bibs emblazoned on the back: "Free our children."

Between speeches, one man wearing Iraqi tribal dress stood up and shouted: "These criminals are not from us! We have no connection with them."

A male quartet took to the stage, with a song about MEK "hypocrites" causing thousands of deaths, who were "embracing each other over our bodies."

Despite the MEK's status on the US terrorism list, which it shares with Al Qaeda and Hezbollah, the group says it renounced violence in 2001.

But the US State Department in autumn 2009 submitted information in court that the MEK had trained women at Ashraf "to perform suicide attacks" in the Iraqi shrine city of Karbala.

A declassified FBI report from 2004 similarly found – with data corroborated by French and German wiretaps – that MEK cells in the US, Europe, and Camp Ashraf were "actively ... planning and executing acts of terrorism."

Violence renounced?

The MEK denies those charges, and has enlisted dozens of top-ranking former US officials and four-star generals – many of them paid tens of thousands of dollars in speakers fees – to make its case to get off the US terror list, and for protection of those at Camp Ashraf. They say Ashraf's residents are anti-regime "freedom fighters."

Among the American advocates are former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani; former US homeland security chief Tom Ridge; former CIA directors James Woolsey, Porter Goss, and Michael Hayden; and top retired generals such as Wesley Clark, Hugh Shelton, and Peter Pace.

"This is genocide, and we will not have it!" Howard Dean, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told a pro-MEK audience in July, about Iraqi plans to close the camp. "We will free the people of Ashraf, and we will free the people of Iran from the tyranny of the mullahs."

At the camp itself, MEK members long ago had their identity documents confiscated, and have little access to the outside world through phones, Internet, or TV. They must take part in self-criticism sessions to expel "deviant thoughts" and pledge "eternal divorce."

Free will?

A detailed 2009 report, funded by the US military and published by the RAND corporation, says that the majority at Camp Ashraf "may have been recruited through deception" and remain there "against their will.

"Love for the Rajavis was to replace love for spouses and family," the report reads. MEK members once carried cyanide tablets in case of capture, and since 2003 "the MEK frequently used the threat of suicide as a negotiating tactic or to frustrate investigations."

Mrs. Rajavi's temporary arrest by French authorities on terrorism charges in 2003 prompted a wave of self-immolations.

Recent MEK defectors from the camp interviewed by the Monitor say further dramatic acts may take place, as the deadline nears.

"It's clear to me, [Mr. Rajavi] wants people to get killed, and send it to the media," argues Shahram Heydari, who left the camp two months ago. When the April clashes took place with Iraqi troops, he claims, "I clearly saw they [MEK] were pushing people forward" into the line of fire.

Rajavi's "strategy is based on Ashraf," says Mr. Heydari. "He must have the camp to keep power."

Several defectors say they believe Rajavi is in the camp. A former member of the MEK leadership council, Maryam Sanjabi, defected 10 months ago after spending 24 years at Ashraf. She says she saw Mr. Rajavi "many times," up until four years go.

"He's there, he's alive.... His orders are being carried out there – he is the brain," says Sanjabi. Years of brainwashing to make MEK members believe Rajavi "is a god," means the leadership may calculate it "doesn't matter if one thousand people die," she says.

"If you are ordered to burn yourself, you can't resist: you burn yourself," says Sanjabi.

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