Why would Iraq’s Al-Maleki order a heavy assault on 3400 unarmed, defenseless Iranian dissidents in a refugee settlement northeast of Baghdad? Reports reaching news agencies confirm that at least 31 Iranian dissidents have been killed and hundreds wounded. Medical supplies are being blocked as the critically wounded continue to die.
Ashraf has been the seat of Iran’s most steadfast opposition force to the ruling theocracy, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, since the late 1980’s when the group’s thousands of members and supporters moved to Iraq. The residents of Ashraf have organized resistance to the Iranian regime since then. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Ashraf residents disarmed in a deal with the US military that pledged in return to protect them. Ashraf residents are internationally “Protected Persons” based on the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Since last week the Iranian dissidents have been warning of an imminent attack. Early this morning thousands of Iraqi forces stormed the camp with armored vehicles and breached its protective fencing, killing and wounding many. There are reports of shelling of civilian residences in the camp and looting of areas overrun by Iraqi forces.
The attack is reminiscent of a similar brutal attack in July 2009, simultaneous with the uprisings in Iran, which resulted in the death of 11 dissidents. That attack resulted in widespread international condemnation of the Iraqi regime which has moved increasingly close to Iran’s rulers. Al-Maliki and a majority of his regime are beholden to Tehran’s assistance during their years of exile there. Despite pretenses of steering an independent line from Tehran, Al-Maliki is closely aligned with Iran’s rulers in suppressing their main opposition based in Ashraf. He has shown his loyalty to an agreement to dissolve the camp and expel its residents to certain death in Iran despite international outcries and appeals to recognize Ashraf residents as refugees under international law.
Unfortunately, the US Administration has set the stage for today’s attack. The US handover of security at Ashraf in 2009 to Iraqi forces was like giving the fox sway over the chickens coop. It was also a violation of international obligations of the United States which had pledged to protect the camp’s residents. There are reports that US forces in nearby Baquba who are tasked with monitoring security in Ashraf and intervening if necessary did not respond to appeals for help at the camp. This all occurred during the visit to Iraq by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
The Iranian state-run Fars News Agency reported in its Persian service that Iraqi forces launched their attack on Ashraf in coordination with US forces. Robert Gates was quoted by AFP to have “called for restraint” but mentioned that the US military would not have any role but to provide medical assistance, essentially remaining passive while a lethal attack was being carried out against a defenseless civilian population.
The US Administration’s continued listing of the PMOI/MEK as a foreign terrorist organization despite a ruling by a US Appeals Court ordering the US State Department to review the designation after the court could not find convincing evidence supporting the designation, puts the US in the dubious position of being the only country other than Iran to list the organization as “terrorist.” Just such a designation has been offered as justification for attacks on the camp by the Iranian-aligned regime of Nouri Al-Maleki.
The Guardian reported today that, “A WikiLeaks cable uncovered by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism at City University in London showed that the US was aware the Iraqi government planned to crack down on the MEK, with potentially grave humanitarian consequences.”
"If the government of Iraq acts harshly against the MEK and provokes a reaction," warned the US deputy chief of mission in Iraq, Patricia Butenis, in a cable in March 2009, "the USG faces a challenging dilemma: we either protect members of a foreign terrorist organization against actions of the Iraqi security forces and risk violating the US-Iraq security agreement, or we decline to protect the MEK in the face of a humanitarian crisis, thus leading to international condemnation of both the US government and the government of Iraq."
Phil Shiner of the UK law firm Public Interest Lawyers, which represents some Ashraf residents, said: "I have not seen these cables. However, from what I can gather their content is quite astonishing and shows that the US – and by implication the UK – knew Iraqis were treating residents inhumanely, foresaw the possibility of serious injuries in clashes at the camp, and knew what was happening at the time of the deaths but did absolutely nothing."
As the reports from Ashraf continue to reflect a rising death toll, it is appropriate for all human rights defenders to ask the US, UK and European governments to seriously consider the moral and political consequences of their inaction in the run-up to this tragedy. The international norm of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) has been applied in Libya as a raging madman repeatedly threatened and attacked a civilian population. US and Western credibility may be at stake if it is not equally applied in Ashraf where an increasingly authoritarian ally of the Iranian regime uses the US FTO listing to do Tehran’s bidding in suppressing its main opposition movement.
The people in Ashraf deserve the right to life and liberty and are internationally protected persons. The US would do well do stand by its commitments.
Jubin Afshar, is Director of Near East Studies at Near East Policy Research in Washington, D.C.