Three retired U.S. Colonels who were in charge of protecting Camp Ashraf, Iraq, between 2003 and 2009 have urged the U.S. government to live up to its moral and legal obligation to protect the several thousand members of the main Iranian opposition People’s Mojahedin (PMOI), or Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), who are being subjected to inhumane abuses by the Iraqi government at the behest of the Iranian regime.
The U.S. and other key world powers concluded a controversial nuclear agreement with Iran in mid-July, which left the regime’s nuclear infrastructure in place but conceded to lifting crippling sanctions.
The administration has been widely criticized for failing to negotiate the release of American hostages held by the regime, including an American pastor, a former Marine and a journalist. The administration has claimed that this demand was a separate issue from the nuclear deal. Still, when it came to Iranian demands, it agreed to lift conventional weapons embargo and sanctions on Tehran’s missile program, which was also a non-nuclear issue.
Now, it has been revealed that the administration is also staying quiet as the Iranian regime has increased pressure on dissidents taking refuge in neighboring Iraq. For months now, nearly 2,500 Iranian political refugees residing in Camp Liberty, Iraq, have been subjected to frequent blockades by the Iraqi government and deprived of the most vital life-support needs.
On numerous occasions, including since the conclusion of nuclear weapons negotiations, the Iraqi government, acting at the behest Tehran, prevented the entry of food, fuel and other vital resources, triggering a humanitarian crisis at the decrepit camp, already beset by extensive infrastructure problems. The government only relented after intense pressure by members of the both chambers of U.S. Congress and both houses of British Parliament.
Back in 2004, residents of Camp Liberty, members of Iran’s main opposition, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), who resided in Camp Ashraf in Iraq’s Diyala Province, were formally recognized as “Protected Persons” under the Fourth Geneva Convention. They were also recognized as “Asylum Seekers” by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 2011. For six years, forces under our command protected them.
Since 2009, however, when the Obama administration turned over the protection of the residents to the Iraqi government, several deadly attacks occurred against the residents by Iraqi forces, in which no less than 116 unarmed residents were murdered by Iraqi security forces or the pro-Iran Iraqi militia groups, acting with government complicity.
In 2011, at least 36 residents were killed and hundreds were wounded in a deadly attack that was described by John Kerry, then-Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as a “massacre.” In September 2013, fifty-two more were murdered execution-style by Iraqi forces.
The MEK residents at Camp Liberty have been striving for liberty and democracy in Iran for more than two decades. They have come under increasing pressure after Tehran signed a nuclear agreement with world powers. Disturbingly, the West has exercised silence in order to avert angering Tehran. Similarly, the West has remained silent about Tehran’s drastic human rights violations inside the country.
There have been increasing calls on the United States and United Nations to avert a humanitarian catastrophe at Camp Liberty. The MEK members residing at the camp have no means of self-defense, and the Iraqi government has proven itself not to be a guarantor, but rather a violator, of peace and security.
The United States has a moral and legal obligation to protect the residents. Those promises have been broken multiple times, with well over one hundred innocent lives lost as a result. The Secretary of State should take immediate action to press the Iraqi government to end its inhumane siege of Camp Liberty, undertaken at the behest of the Iranian regime.
The inhumane blockade on fuel, food and other critical humanitarian needs has had a dire impact on the lives of thousands of defenseless Iranian refugees, whom the U.S. government committed itself in writing to protect.
For decades, the Iranian regime has seen the MEK and Camp Liberty residents – many of whom have spent years in Iranian prisons for their political views – as existential threats. The MEK and the residents, 1,000 of whom are women, represent an inspiration to Iranian youth and women yearning for a democratic, secular and non-nuclear Iran.
The MEK was the first to expose the existence of the Iranian regime’s secret nuclear infrastructure in Natanz and Arak in August 2002, which explains Tehran’s hostility.
Now, the recent nuclear deal has emboldened the Iranian regime to move more quickly and decisively to annihilate its opponents both inside Iran and also exiled in neighboring Iraq.
The U.S. has a special moral and legal obligation to the residents to protect their lives. The Secretary of State should intervene to press the Iraqi government ensure that the residents are properly protected and that they are not subjected to similar blockades in the future. Otherwise, Tehran’s tentacles will dominate Iraqi politics and beyond at a time it stands to benefit from the lifting of sanctions.
Martin was senior Antiterrorism/Force Protection officer for all Coalition Forces in Iraq. McCloskey was commander of the Joint Interagency Task Force (JIATF) at Camp Ashraf. Cantwell was battalion commander during several tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. All three served as commandants of Camp Ashraf between 2003 and 2009.