Will Ashraf Internees Survive Obama's Neglect?

While Ambassador Christopher Hill testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 10 September, Iranian dissidents continued a hunger strike in front of the White House. The dissidents, and like-minded Iranian exiles in London, Ottawa, Berlin, The Hague, and Stockholm, are striking in solidarity with 36 of their compatriots being held by Iraqi Security Forces.

On 28 and 29 July, at the behest of the Iranian regime, the Iraqi government invaded Camp Ashraf, home of the main Iranian opposition group, killed 11, injured dozens, and took 36 individuals hostage.

The casualties are among some 3,500 Ashraf residents who — as a body — were declared “protected persons” under the Fourth Geneva Convention by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld on 25 June 2004. The residents of Ashraf — and the responsibility for their safety — were formally transferred to Iraqi authorities on 1 January 2009.

Hill told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the United States was monitoring the status of the 36 and had requested and received Iraqi assurances that they would be treated humanely and not be sent to Iran, where they would surely face prosecution and likely execution.

The terrible irony of the situation is that about one year ago, during late summer 2008, the United States sought and received assurances from the Iraqi government that the Iranian dissidents at Camp Ashraf, members of the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK), would be treated humanely once handed over to Iraqi government jurisdiction with the coming into effect of the Status of Forces Agreement. Those assurances were blatantly violated with the Iraqi raid on Camp Ashraf during July. For Ambassador Hill and the U.S. State Department to again rely on Iraqi assurances with regard to the 36 hostages is naïve in the extreme.

In fact, the United States is obligated to do much more than seek Iraqi assurances; according to Article 45 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, if the state that assumes authority over “protected persons,” as Iraq did, does not honor its obligations, the transferring Power — in this case the United States — is obliged to “take effective measures to correct the situation, or shall request the return of the protected persons…Such request must be complied with.” The only viable way to correct the situation is for the United States to reassert authority over the Iranian dissidents who since 2004 have had “protected persons” status.

Even if the Iraqi government does not extradite the 36 hostages to Iran, Tehran’s infiltration of Iraq’s Interior Ministry puts the Iranian dissidents at serious risk of human rights violations and murder. Hill described a “very malevolent relationship” between Iran and Iraq and the extradition of Iranian dissidents at Camp Ashraf has been at the top of Tehran’s list of demands for several years running.

If the United States government allows the Iranian opposition to be dispersed or repatriated to Iran, not only will it be complicit in a human rights disaster — and possibly a war crime under the Geneva Convention — it will sacrifice a key element of political reconciliation in Iraq. Reconciling such sectarian tensions was a major focus of both the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sens. Kerry and Lugar, respectively, during their questioning of Ambassador Hill.

During a research trip to Iraq I took during October 2008, Iraqis and U.S. military personnel credited the MEK with a major role in helping the formation of Sunni Awakening Councils. Results of the trip were published in President Obama and Iraq: Toward a Responsible Troop Drawdown. The MEK worked to reconcile Sunnis with U.S. forces and convinced many Sunnis to participate in Iraq’s political process. The political impact of the Mujahedeen-e Khalq in Iraq extended beyond relations between Sunnis and the U.S. military to reconciliation among Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and Shiite Arabs. Without such MEK intervention, there is likely to be not only an explosion of Sunni assaults against U.S. Forces but also Shiite attacks against our forces using Iranian weapons, as is taking place in southern Iraq by Shiites.

Indeed, Hill’s testimony argued that Iran “should start by ceasing to provide weaponry to various extremist groups in Iraq.” The assaulted dissidents at Camp Ashraf have been a major source of intelligence on Iranian efforts to subvert Iraq’s democracy by funding militias; no wonder the dissidents are Tehran’s primary target.

Because Hill held fast to the August 2010 deadline for withdrawing all combat forces, it is crucial that the United States avoid the negative consequences of allowing the destruction of Camp Ashraf:

One alternative to allowing Iraq to destroy the Iranian opposition at the behest of Tehran would be for the United States to reassume control of Camp Ashraf until a longer term solution can be negotiated, such as a U.N. monitoring force to replace withdrawing American forces at Camp Ashraf.

The United States will have no excuse if it is again fooled by written assurances that the Iraqi government has no intention of abiding.