It’s a humanitarian catastrophe in the making, make no mistake

Amar Mahdi

The three thousand four hundred Iranian exiles – the disarmed Mujahidin-e Khalq Organisation of Iran – living at Camp Ashraf in north east Iraq close to the Iranian border face further harassment and slaughter with a US proposal to relocate them deeper inside the. The Iraqi government has already made plain its intention to shut the camp down by the end of the year. 

Iraq has been a hostile landlord. On 8 April 2011, in their latest attack on Ashraf, Iraqi troops stormed the camp, an attack that left 36 people dead and was allegedly ordered by Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on behalf of the Iranian regime, which would dearly love to rid the world of these dissidents. 

With a host country like this, the camp’s residents are in urgent need of the international assistance called for by the European Parliament, the UN and, in the US, by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives. 

But, ominously, another plan is on the table that flies in the face of good sense and humanitarian values.

Ambassador Lawrence E. Butler, the US diplomat acting as negotiator between the Iraqi government and Camp Ashraf, has been trying to persuade the MEK to move for the past three months and reiterated in an outspoken New York Times interview on 23 July that the camp be relocated to another area within Iraq, away from the borders of Iran.

It’s a proposal hiding under the guise of protecting Ashraf from another attack by Iraqis.

But moving Camp Ashraf from its current location to an obscure part of Iraq will allow the Iraqi government to control the camp’s new surroundings from the outset and ensure that it is well hidden from the international community’s sights. The residents will be considerably more vulnerable, given Iraq’s current cosying up to the mullahs of Tehran. This much is obvious.

It is certainly obvious to the U.S. Foreign Affairs Committee, which has unanimously passed a resolution to protect the camp. An amendment to the Foreign Relations Authorization Act introduced by Republican Congressman Ted Poe of Texas, and passed just two days before Butler’s intervention, stated that the U.S. should “take all necessary and appropriate steps in accordance with international agreements to support the commitments of the United States to ensure the physical security and protection of Camp Ashraf residents; and to take all necessary and appropriate steps to prevent the forcible relocation of Camp Ashraf residents inside Iraq and to facilitate the robust presence of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) in Camp Ashraf.”

Butler’s stance is, rightly, coming under fire.

Alejo Vidal-Quadras, vice president of the European Parliament, and president of the International Committee in Search of Justice, on 25 July wrote to the U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton asking her to act on the Ambassador’s comments in the New York Times, which he described as “despicable, shocking and serving the bidding of the totalitarian regime ruling Iran”.

He went on: “Mr Butler likes to shape world opinion in such a way that everyone would be satisfied that the next assault is the outcome of a conflict between the Iraqi army and a terrorist Iranian group and not, as it is the case, as a brutal attack of an armed force against unarmed civilians.

“The attitude of Mr Butler in this interview is so hostile towards Ashraf residents that one thinks his principal objective is to appease the Iranian regime; a regime that just recently has been responsible for the killings of 15 U.S. troops in Iraq with weapons that purposefully carry the phrase: ‘Made by Defence Ministry of Islamic Republic of Iran’.”

The residents of Ashraf themselves have been flexible in their negotiations with Ambassador Butler, presenting him with six different plans that accept relocation within Iraq only under a guarantee that they will be protected by the U.S. or the U.N..

However, in the New York Times article, during negotiations Butler told the camp: “If I don’t get assurances that you will move to a new location in Iraq, the next round of negotiations could be very short.” Being a diplomat, where did Ambassador Butler leave his diplomacy?

Butler offered only a curt tone with the camp, saying: “You probably have in mind Hawaii,” he said to the camp in teasing their hopes of ever gaining protection in the US. “I suspect you don’t want to go to Guantanamo,” he added.

Vidal-Quadras told Mrs Clinton that it was quite apparent that Mr Butler has a political rather than a humanitarian agenda.

Butler, as indicated in Vidal-Quadras’s letter, appears bent on the dismantling of the MEK, thus dancing to the tune of Tehran and Baghdad.

On 17 July in Washington, General Hugh Shelton, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the idea – supported by Ambassador James Jeffrey in Iraq – that “Ashraf residents should be relocated somewhere else in Iraq without any assurance or even any apparent concern for their safety or providing rationale as to why this is a good idea, other than it moves it further away from the Iran border, is appalling. It causes me to stop and wonder what has this man drinking?

“This idea is a recipe for disaster. It is a recipe for slaughter. It is a recipe for ethnic cleansing, far outside the reaches, now, of the international community. By dispersing the residents of Ashraf, it is setting up a recipe for — or setting up a disaster.”

Shelton is right. The plight of the Iranian resistance at Ashraf is all too often neglected by the international community and media, and has been further overshadowed by the Arab Spring. The PMOI renounced its violent paramilitary past back in 2001. It has protected person status under the Geneva Convention. UN Secretary General Ban ki Moon has urged a consensus solution. The European Parliament supports third country resettlement. 

The US must listen. It has a compelling legal, moral and political responsibility, as Vidal-Quadras has said. When it is so utterly opposed to the Iranian regime would it allow the obliteration of a resistance movement? Shelton in fact credited the camp with delivering vital intelligence on Iran’s nuclear programme. And is the US really happy at Iranian interference in the affairs of Iraq?