U.S. Faces Humanitarian Crisis in Iraq

There is a humanitarian crisis brewing in Iraq which — if not averted — could further tarnish the image of the United States as a party to a crime against humanity.

Recent remarks by the Iraqi National Security Advisor, Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, indicating his intention to expel and possibly extradite to Iran nearly 3,800 Iranian dissident refugees in Camp Ashraf Iraq who are under the protection of American forces could be a prelude to mass murder. After all the sacrifices by the Iraqi and American peoples for an Iraq adhering to international and humanitarian conventions, the current government, under pressure from Tehran, may well be paving the way for these dissidents’ wholesale massacre.

It will be up to the incoming Obama administration to either live up to our obligations, or shoulder the blame for our failure to do so.

According to media reports, Mr. Al-Rubaie has stated that his government would soon assume responsibility for security at Camp Ashraf, whose residents would be repatriated unless they find a third country willing to take them. Given that the United Nations has failed to find other countries willing to accept these Iranian pro-democracy patriots, Mr. Al-Rubaie’s assertion is tantamount to an announcement of their extradition to Iran or their Srebrenica-style massacre in Camp Ashraf by Iran’s proxies.

There are many humanitarian and political reasons we must ensure the safety and security of the Ashraf residents, who were recognized by the United States and our senior commanders as “Protected Persons” according to the Fourth Geneva Convention. They remained non-belligerent during the 2003 war and voluntarily disarmed in exchange for our promise of guaranteed protection against Tehran’s agents and its Iraqi proxies. To date, we have lived up to this commitment. Now, we are talking about putting foxes in charge of protecting the chicken coop.

Under the agreement signed between the United States and Iraq and the continued presence of American Forces in Iraq until 2011, the U.S. remains responsible for the safety and security of the Iranian dissidents in Ashraf. If the security of Camp Ashraf is transferred to the Iraqi Government, Tehran is certain to mount enormous pressure on the nascent Iraqi Government hoping that Baghdad will buckle. And they probably will.  

Tehran, like all dictatorships, is insecure.  It fears the People’s Mohajedin Organization of Iran (PMOI) more than any other dissident group and will do anything it can to capture and kill its members.  If they succeed in doing so, the Tehran regime will be emboldened to more and bigger challenges to the incoming Obama administration.  This is the last thing President-elect Obama needs if he is to execute the phased drawdown of American forces in Iraq.

What happens to the people of Ashraf resonates with me personally.  My views come from the unique perspective of someone who has lived and worked among them for an extended period of time. I am an emergency room physician, and a colonel in the Army Reserves.

In 2004, I was called up to go to Iraq as a physician on active duty with the army. Before I was assigned to Camp Ashraf, I had never heard of Ashraf or of the PMOI/MEK. So I came to Ashraf with an open mind.

My job was not only to take care of the several hundred M.Ps who served in that area, but also to act as the official Army liaison for health care issues with the 3,800 or so residents of Ashraf City. And in that role, unlike our military people at the forward operating base, I had daily contact with them. I asked for and was given free access, unannounced, to visit any part of Ashraf. I took advantage and visited their two hospitals, factories, housing units, schools, sports facilities, training facilities, cultural facilities, etc. I got to know the people of Ashraf and the problems they faced.

In many ways, Ashraf is an oasis. Its people are highly educated, many with master’s and doctorate degrees, many educated here in the United States or in European universities. Camp Ashraf has dedicated itself to promoting reconciliation and the healing of sectarian strife in Iraq, hosting many inter-tribal council meetings of Iraqis from throughout Iraq, and trilateral talks involving our troops and Iraqi tribal and community leaders. I attended the celebration of International Women’s Day in Ashraf, attended by thousands of women from across Iraq.

As I left Iraq for home, it struck me that these people are playing a major role in creating stability in Iraq and contributing to the safety of American forces, both in the intelligence they are gathering, and the goodwill they are creating among the Shia and Sunnis.. After living and working with the people of Ashraf, I am convinced that they are a tremendous asset to the common goals of our country and to freedom-loving Iraqis. But, of course, the people of Ashraf are not there to support the U.S. or Iraq — although they do — but to free their own country, Iran.

So why in the world would our government not go beyond just protecting them, but also support and engage them in our common cause? They are an asset in a noble cause — a free and democratic Middle East. These are the ideals for which America stands. Anything less than protecting the people of Ashraf is a betrayal of our promise, and our best interests.

To be honest, mistakes have been made on all sides over these past several years.  One thing the U.S. has never wavered from is its commitment to the people of Ashraf when they voluntarily disarmed and submitted to full cooperation with our country.  Our commitment to them was to provide them protection from both internal and external threats, primarily the threat of Iranian influence.  

Now, as we began a transition to a new Iraq, the U.S. must make a renewed commitment to their support of the people of Ashraf.  The bold, intentional action of standing up for justice and liberty by supporting the PMOI would send a needed message to millions of disenfranchised, oppressed, freedom-loving Iranians, who desire nothing more than a free Iran.  We cannot abandon the very goal for which we entered Iraq, and for which I served, and many died.  

We must act quickly in support of our friends in Ashraf.  If we do not, their blood may be on our hands.