The Iranian dissidents in Iraq, who gave up their weapons to American forces in exchange for the promise of sanctuary, were the target of mortar and rocket fire from an Iranian-allied faction Feb. 9 at the former site of U.S. Forces-Iraq’s Camp Liberty.
Six dissidents were killed and dozens were wounded in the attack that originated in the West Baghdad neighborhoods dominated by the Badr organization.
The Badr movement is an Iraqi Shia militia and political party linked to Iran and Iranian interests.
The dissidents belong to the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, also known by their Farsi initials, MEK.
The MEK was the guest of the Saddam Hussein’s regime. Until 2012, MEK was listed by the State Department as a terrorist organization, a legacy of its anti-American operations when it was part of the opposition to the Shah of Iran. Soon after the 1979 Iranian Revolution that overthrew the Shah, more radical elements purged the MEK, which tended to draw its members from Iran’s professional classes.
When American liberators toppled Hussein’s regime, the MEK agreed to turnover their weapons to the U.S. Military for safekeeping in exchange for permission to remain in Iraq as a community at their installation Camp Ashraf. In 2009, the camp was transferred to the control of the Iraqi government, where the Iranians have increased their influence in converse with the American abandonment of the Iraqi project.
The Iraqi government moved the MEK to Camp Liberty, which is part of the Victory Base Complex that is located between the western neighborhoods of Baghdad and the Baghdad International Airport.
Iraq is a majority Shiite country, like Iran, but culturally, the Iraqis are Arab, not Persian, like the Iranians, who live in modern-day Persia. While Iraqi Shia want religious community with Iranian Shia, as Arabs, they are hostile to domination by Persians. These overlapping faultlines are further complicated by the divisions among Iraqi Shia over the role of religion in civil affairs.
Prof. Raymond Tanter, the president of the Washington-based Iran Policy Committee said, “Indiscriminate rocket and mortar fire from Badr Brigade assailants acting on behalf of Baghdad is just as horrendous as direct fire from Iraqi forces; but at least it is possible to assign immediate responsibility to Baghdad.” Tanter teaches at Georgetown University.
The Iraqi Army has attacked the MEK at their former base at Camp Ashraf after assuming control from U.S.-Forces-Iraq, said the former member of the National Security Council staff in the Reagan-Bush administration.
“During July 2009, seven months after Iraqi Security Forces took control of Camp Ashraf from the U.S. military, Iraqi forces raided the camp, resulting in 11 residents killed and hundreds more wounded,” he said.
The founding President of the Global Initiative for Democracy Bruce McColm said there was second attack on Camp Ashraf by the Iraqi Army April 8, 2011.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called for an investigation of the 2011 attack on Camp Ashraf, which he called a “massacre.”
Kerry said in a statement after that attack, “The investigation must hold accountable the responsible parties and ensure that there will be no sequel to these horrific events.”
McColm, who was also the executive director of Freedom House, said, “Secretary of State Kerry is in a position to order an investigation of assaults on Iranian exiles in Iraq; hence, he has a responsibility to do so, as well as to pressure Baghdad to protect and return them safely back to Camp Ashraf from Liberty.”
Tanter said there is evidence that the Iraqi government had foreknowledge of the deadly indirect fire attack.
“There is possible complicity of Iraq in the February assault because of the sudden cancellation of planned talks in Washington by General Babakir Zebari, Chief of Staff, Iraqi Joint Forces, who returned to Baghdad about the time when the attacks occurred against Camp Liberty,” the professor said.
This complicity would be consistent with past statements and behavior, he said. “Zebari met with Islamic Revolution Guards Corps Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari in Tehran on Nov. 15 and vowed to expel the MEK by the end of that year.”
“In view of prior attacks on Iranian exiles in Iraq, if the Badr Brigade were involved, this militia may be acting as a proxy for both Tehran and Baghdad,” he said.
“If Iraq’s Shia-led pro-Iranian government wants the MEK out of Iraq, then Baghdad should allow residents of Liberty to leave Iraq rather than impose restrictions on their departure,” he said.
Three retired senior military officers, who serve on IPC’s board of directors, Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas G. McInerney, Army Maj. Gen. Paul E. Vallely and Navy Captain Charles “Chuck” Nash released a joint statement condemning the Feb. 9 attack and requested a Pentagon and United Nations investigation.
“It is not enough for UN special envoy Martin Kobler to ask local authorities to ‘promptly conduct an investigation,’ the United Nations envoy also has the responsibility to conduct his investigation of the assault,” the retired officers said.
If it is established that the Iraqi government was part of the attack, the American government must pressure the Iraqi government to return the MEK to Camp Ashraf, where they were not within range of hostile militia, they said. “Until they are resettled to third countries.”
Antonio Guterres, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees said the attack was a despicable act of violence, particularly because the camp residents are asylum seekers entitled to international protection.
Amnesty International said in a statement that the Iraqi government must provide answers about the attack.
“Authorities in Iraq must urgently investigate the attack against a camp of Iranian exiles that left several people dead and injured and ensure all those wounded receive appropriate medical care,” the statement said. “The investigation should also look into the conduct of Iraqi security forces in the lead up and during the attack and whether they have failed to prevent any such attack.”