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A peaceful, pro-democracy group (MEK) working for freedom and true democratic governments in Iran and Iraq is relying on the US not to withdraw

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Iraq, MEK and US Retreat

A peaceful, pro-democracy group (MEK) working for freedom and true democratic governments in Iran and Iraq is relying on the US not to withdraw

For 17 years before the US invasion of Iraq, a lion roamed the border, foraging into Iran on occasion before returning to its Iraqi safe haven.  Its prey was the Iranian mullahs’ elite military force — the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).  It enjoyed tremendous hunting prowess, growing in size and strength.   But during the 2003 invasion, US forces attacked, de-clawed and caged the beast in an effort to placate those who feared it most — Tehran’s leadership.  As anti-war critics insist upon a quick US withdrawal from Iraq, they show little concern, if any, for the lion’s fate in the wake of such a departure.  We must not ignore the lion’s fate now less its subsequent slaughter, in the event of a US withdrawal, becomes yet another post-war holocaust for which our actions were responsible. 

The "lion" is the People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI) — also known as Mujahedin-e Khalq or “MEK.”  It is an ideological group, first organized in 1965 by students at Tehran University opposed to the Shah’s rule, who objected as well to fundamentalist interpretations of Islam.  Following Iran’s 1979 revolution that brought the brutal Ayatollah Khomeini regime to power, MEK was gaining popular support.  A peaceful MEK-sponsored demonstration in 1981 against Khomeini’s brutality led to one of Iran’s most severe human rights abuses.  Security personnel, on Khomeini’s orders, opened fire on half a million demonstrators, arresting many who were later executed in prison.  MEK’s response to this violence was violent as well, attacking IRGC elements and numerous Iranian government officials involved in the torture and execution of Khomeini’s critics.  As Khomeini cracked down on MEK’s membership, its leadership fled to  France.    

However, MEK’s residency in France was short-lived.  In a deal made between Paris and Tehran to effect the release of French hostages held by Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1986, the French government ordered MEK out of the country.  Homeless, it re-located to Iraq where, in spite of its Iranian membership, it was tolerated by Saddam Hussein who saw MEK as a buffer to Iran.  Its goal ever since 1979 has been single-minded — to bring about a regime change in Iran to one respectful of individual rights.  It was able to build an impressive liberation army by capturing hundreds of tanks and other military equipment from the IRGC.

The issue of determining whether the lion was friendly or not to the US was muddled when — at the request of the Iranian regime — the Clinton Department of State listed MEK as a terrorist organization.  Various accusations against MEK have included involvement in terrorist attacks against US citizens working in Iran under the Shah, cooperating with Saddam to put down the post 1991 Gulf war uprisings, and so forth.

An independent group, represented by former Congressman Dick Armey, has assessed these allegations and the evidence upon which State relied in reaching its decision, finding State’s decision was "fundamentally flawed."  Far from being terrorists, Armey found MEK to be “a pro-democratic organization that for more than 40 years has worked to bring democracy and freedom to Iran…The MEK has repeatedly been a pawn…sacrificed in US-Iranian and Franco-Iranian relations."  Ironically, it was put on the terrorist list in 1997 as a "goodwill gesture to Iran" — the greatest state sponsor of terrorism.  Clearly fearing MEK, Iran managed to run an effective propaganda campaign to paint MEK in a terrorist light.  Meanwhile, as MEK spends its tenth year on the list, State has yet to similarly list Iran’s IRGC whose Qud’s Force fuels the war in Iraq.   

A fundamental difference in beliefs exists between MEK and Iran’s clerics — the former believe in man’s right to exercise free will; the latter totally oppose it.  And, as contrasted by Iran’s Islamofascist views which subjugate women to male rule, MEK women occupy the top positions in government and the military.

Recently revealed secret communications between Washington and Tehran, initiated by the latter, occurred at a time Iran feared both the US and MEK — before and immediately after Baghdad’s collapse.  The focus of those communications was on MEK.  In exchange for Washington removing the MEK thorn from Iran’s side, Tehran promised to behave in Iraq.  This pact led to US attacks against MEK during the Iraq invasion.  In what is perhaps the most revealing of tests of this lion’s demeanor, however, MEK refused to retaliate against US forces.  Thus, while the US abided by its side of the pact with Iran, Tehran failed to abide to its side.

In one final act of contrition by the MEK, they agreed to being disarmed and their freedom of movement restricted.  MEK surrendered all weaponry to the US; it submitted its members to extensive US investigation to ascertain if any were involved in terrorist activity (no charges against a MEK member were ever filed); and, finally, the MEK agreed to be caged.  Limited to free movement only within the confines of Camp Ashraf in volatile Diyala Province, MEK was granted "protected persons” status under the Fourth Geneva Convention. 

But this protection is provided by the lion’s handlers — the US Government.  Only a handful of members are allowed out under close US supervision and protection.  Meanwhile, MEK has been winning over local tribesman in Iraq’s Diyala Province — once considered one of the most violent areas but now considered one of the least.  The local tribes also extend protection to MEK. Tehran fears MEK’s presence in Iraq as the lion has unified moderate Iraqis and been effective in conducting US/Sunni mediations.  MEK’s very positive contribution to peace and stability in the region was recently recognized in a petition signed by more than five million Iraqis.

If anti-war critics prevail in demanding a US withdrawal from Iraq, what will happen to MEK?  "Protected persons" receive international recognition as such for only so long as an occupying force is in Iraq.  Thus, upon a coalition force withdrawal, MEK loses this protective status.  When asked about such an outcome, MEK Secretary General, Ms. Mojgan Parsai told Fox News in May 2007, "If the US withdraws from Iraq before democracy is established in this country, it virtually means that it would hand over Iraq to the Tehran mullahs who are the godfather of terrorism; if a democratic government is in power in Iraq, then we should have no problem with the US forces leaving."

It is doubtful Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki — closely connected to Iran’s mullahs — would do anything to help MEK.  And, thousands of displaced MEK would generate a tidal wave of refugees, receiving little support from neighboring countries already overburdened by a continuing flow of Iraqi refugees.  Rest assured too, as soon as Iran felt brazen enough to do so, it would target MEK for total destruction, either directly through the IRGC or indirectly through Iranian-supported Iraqi Shiite militias. 

Also to be considered is whether we give the MEK the arms we confiscated so it could defend itself when US forces withdraw from Iraq.  The answer is obvious — for not to do so would result in a massacre of MEK by Iranian forces. And just as critical is the timing of the weapons return.  It is unknown whether regular maintenance has been performed on the weaponry.  Just like an unused sword loses its sharp edge, so too does a MEK army denied use of its weapons and equipment for training.  This army needs to be given the capability to prepare for the fight of its life — and with adequate time to do so. 

If there is any “grand bargain” with Iran as US forces leave Iraq, the protection of MEK members is a responsibility we must meet.  For such a bargain to abandon the MEK members — at least 3000 of them in Camp Ashraf  — would be to sentence them to death. 

The fate of MEK is one of but several considerations that must be well thought out prior to conducting a US withdrawal.  Those politicians suggesting short term timetables for this are clearly failing to consider the full impact.  Many Iraqis who have been loyal to the US will also pay the ultimate price for having backed the wrong horse. 

Because US forces today protect it, the lion sleeps tonight.  But with the withdrawal of US caretaker forces tomorrow a possibility, the de-clawed lion may well be slaughtered as easily as the sacrificial lamb. 

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Written By

Lieutenant Colonel James Zumwalt is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the 1989 intervention into Panama and Desert Storm. An author, speaker and business executive, he also currently heads a security consulting firm named after his father -- Admiral Zumwalt & Consultants, Inc. He has also been cited in numerous other books and publications for unique insights based on his research on the Vietnam war, North Korea (a country he has visited ten times and about which he is able to share some very telling observations) and Desert Storm.

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