After U.S. departure, a bloodbath in Iraq?

By Bernd Debusmann
November 4, 2011

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

As the clock ticks towards the end of America’s military presence in Iraq, there are increasingly dire warnings of a humanitarian disaster unless steps are taken to protect more than 3,000 Iranian dissidents living in a camp in Iraq. How closely is Washington listening?

Gloomy forecasts for the fate of the exiles at Camp Ashraf, north of Baghdad near the border with Iran, have come from Amnesty International, a long string of prominent former U.S. government officials, retired generals, and members of the European Parliament. One of them, Struan Stevenson, predicts “a Srebrenica-style massacre,” a reference to the 1995 killing of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims during the Bosnian War.

Stevenson, who is head of the European Parliament’s delegation on Iraq, issued his warning this week in an op-ed in the conservative Washington Times newspaper. Also this week, Amnesty International said there was a “serious risk of severe human rights violations” if the Iraqi government went ahead with plans to force the closure of the camp by the end of December.

On a more subdued note, the administration of President Barack Obama, long silent on the exiles, is also expressing concern. U.S. officials, according to a State Department spokesman, are impressing on the Iraqi government the importance of treating the residents of Camp Ashraf humanely.

How seriously the Iraqis are taking American exhortations is open to doubt. U.S. influence in Iraq is waning rapidly while that of Iran is rising.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has repeatedly urged Iraq to expel the exiles. They belong to the Mujahedin-e-Khalq — or the People’s Mujahideen Organization of Iran (PMOI) — once a powerful armed group that staged raids into Iran between 1986 and 2001, when it renounced violence. The PMOI handed over its weapons to U.S. invasion forces after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

After being vetted for possible involvement in terrorist activities, the PMOI members at Ashraf were granted “Protected Person” status under the Fourth Geneva convention and the U.S. military assumed control of the camp. That was a bizarre twist even by the standards of the Middle East because the PMOI remained on the U.S. government’s list of terrorist organizations.

American protection of the camp ended in January 2009, when the U.S. transferred control to the Iraqi government. According to testimony to a Congressional hearing, that transfer followed an explicit and written assurance by the Iraqi government that it would respect the protected status of Ashraf residents.

Just seven months later, Iraqi security forces stormed into the camp, whose inhabitants include around 1,000 women. In the ensuing clashes, at least nine residents were killed and scores injured. On April 8, 2011, Iraqi security forces moved into the camp again, using what Amnesty International termed “grossly excessive force and live fire.” Thirty-six residents were killed and more than 300 wounded.

So much for respecting assurances to the Americans.

LACK OF RESPECT

That lack of respect, prominent U.S. supporters of the PMOI say, has its roots in a 1997 decision by the Clinton administration to put the PMOI on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. In the words of Louis Freeh, who was director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) at the time, the move was part of “a fruitless political ploy to encourage a dialogue with Tehran” without evidence that the group posed a threat to the United States.

In an op-ed article in the New York Times, he added: “Tragically, the State Department’s unjustified terrorist label makes the Mujahedin’s enemies in Tehran and Baghdad feel as if they have license to kill and trample on the written guarantees of protection given to the Ashraf residents by the United States.”

There is an obvious irony in the fact that practically the only thing the American and Iranian governments have in common is their designation of the PMOI as a terrorist organization. But that has done nothing to accelerate a State Department review of the label ordered by a federal court in Washington on July 16, 2010.

(The European Union took the group off its list in 2009. Britain did so in 2008, on a court ruling that called the designation “perverse.”)

Fifteen months later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in an interview with a Voice of America program in Farsi, noted that the EU had taken the PMOI off its terrorist list “after a very thorough assessment” that came to the conclusion there was no evidence of terrorist activity. “We’re still assessing the evidence here in the United States.”

Judging from the snail’s pace of that assessment, there is no sense of urgency about the matter. That’s something the Obama administration might come to regret.

15 comments

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[...] After US departure, a bloodbath in Iraq?Reuters Blogs (blog)As the clock ticks towards the end of America's military presence in Iraq, there are increasingly dire warnings of a humanitarian disaster unless steps are taken to protect more than 3000 Iranian dissidents living in a camp in Iraq. …A US Pledge of Protection: What is it Worth?Huffington Post (blog)What's Next for Iran?Fox NewsCommentary: A long list of suckerseTaiwan NewsTIME (blog) -Washington Times -Family Security Mattersall 145 news articles »   If you enjoyed this article, please consider sharing it! [...]

Great article. It sums up the situation (a serious likelihood, or rather guarantee) that Camp Ashraf will be annihilated unless the Obama administration and the UN get their act together, station a force inside the Camp, protect the camp externally, and tell Iraqi forces to back off from the camp and its residents. The EU delisted the PMOI, and the US should never have placed them on the blacklist in the first place, but should delist them immediately too. Please keep the attention focused on this situation, if only to force Obama to take responsibility for the situation, and guarantee the safety of the residents, as was promised by the US.

Posted by hoda | Report as abusive

A great piece by Mr. Debusmann. He has laid out the case perfectly, demonstrating the promises by Maliki are not trustworthy and that the Obama administration has the responsibility to avert a massacre at Ashraf but using its wherewithal with the Iraqi government. After all, nearly 4,500 Americans did not die to empower Maliki to eliminate the most effective opponents of the mullah regime in Iran.
Debusmann is also spot-on concerning the designation of the PMOI. It has no basis in law or fact and as Rep. John Lewis said at a Congressional hearing, “Justice delayed is Justice denied.”

Posted by qlbert2011 | Report as abusive

Excellent article. Any attempt to close Camp Ashraf, after the Camp residents have accepted the European parliament’s plan for resettlement in third countries, is absolutely illegal, suppressive, in the interests of Tehran and a pretext to massacre Camp Ashraf residents. Iranians, whether they support PMOI-MEK or not, are extremely unhappy about Obama and his reluctance to remove this group from the US black list. Very hypocritical indeed.

Posted by tomdavy | Report as abusive

I sincerely hope the Secretary Clinton realizes that the delay in removing PMOI (aka MEK) from the FTO list will have it’s own price. Unfortunately, people like me ho have friends and family at Camp Ashraf, Iraq, will have to pay the price by seeing their loved ones massacred by Nuri Al-Maliki forces.
As a naturalized US Citizen though, I know my adopted homeland did not send its bravest to Iraq to sacrifice thousands of lives so that Iraq can become a playground for Iranian Ayatollahs’ Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps so that they can make Iraq an annex of their Fundamentalist republic.
We need to protect people of Ashraf and remove MEK from the FTO list so that people of Iran can be empowered to move towards democratic change in Iran. This is the ONLY way we can prevent another war.

Posted by Mehdi_Shareif | Report as abusive

[...] and the international community has the means to stop it, it should intervene to do so. …After US departure, a bloodbath in Iraq?Reuters Blogs (blog)all 149 news [...]

[...] a report in Reuters News brings up an important [...]

This is a country which was formed, as it is now, by the Brits in 1922 after WWI. Winston Churchill, Third Lord of the Admiralty, later PM, was the “genius” who made sure that ALL the oil Britain could have would be available. He made sure the French didn’t get any. So, we have a country which had bad blood between three ethnic groups to begin with in the ’20s. What do you expect? We are going to have American men and women killed and American treasure exploited to keep the warring parties apart? NO Thanks. We’ve been there, done that. Once burned, twice shy.

Posted by neahkahnie | Report as abusive

@neahkahnie
Just continuing your post, Britain and BP were also the ones that took all of Iran’s oil. When the Iranians kicked up a fuss and wanted a cut of their own oil the Brits offered the US half the Iranian oil to help put the Iranians back in their place.
The US and Britain kicked out the democratic Government and installed a King.
The destruction of the Iranian democracy is why the Iranian people still hate the US and Britain to this day.

Posted by Sinbad1 | Report as abusive

A daily blood bath exists with them in place. It was a blood bath before our soldiers were there and it will continue as it will in Afghanistan no matter what we do. I would say you could provide 1 million dollars to every family in Iraq and they would still be killing each other because history is on their side and reflects the Iraqis tribal beliefs.

Posted by Intriped | Report as abusive

[...] surrender all their weapons.  They did so after being promised that the US would protect them.  Bernd Debusmann (Reuters) picks up the story there: After being vetted for possible involvement in terrorist activities, the PMOI [...]

@neahkahnie & @Sinbad1,

Thanks for both posts.

Bernd,

why is it the Iraqis don’t know better. Is there more to the hatred? Even though being on a list would cause negativity, why is it we are presented what is described as inhumane indiscriminant raids by the Iraqi government on PMOI.

“”In an op-ed article in the New York Times, he added: “Tragically, the State Department’s unjustified terrorist label makes the Mujahedin’s enemies in Tehran and Baghdad feel as if they have license to kill and trample on the written guarantees of protection given to the Ashraf residents by the United States.” “”

They must have pissed some Iraqi’s off in some way. I think they have some idea of whats going on around them other than just our label and militant raids on IRAN.

If the PMOI camp are going have a sense of safety if they “deserve” it like acknowledged on paper, it seems the only way to give it to them is any place but Iraq and Iran. Like fixing by paying up front instead of leasing a car you can’t afford for more money and you wont end up owning. Not that this would actually be considered an option here. Nobody’s getting relocated.

So can you tell me why the Iraqis hate these people like they apparently do.

Greatly appreciate the article, Bernd. Reuters is the best.

Posted by Spac122 | Report as abusive

Duh! The stupidity of the current U.S. Government in announcing a departure date in Iraq will only encourage Iran and its puppets to immediately move in and take over using America’s left over supplies and transportation that this country has deemed too expensive to move back here. Bush screwed up by not departing after we did “Dessert Storm” and Sadam was captured. There is no justification from that point.

Posted by Wassup | Report as abusive

Iranians fear and dislike all foreigners, and always have. They do have some pretty good reasons to.

Of course Iraq will have conflict. It has it now. It is, as noted, a “created” country. Like all such countries carved out of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, it is unstable and will have to sort itself out by either negotiations or conflict. Western interventions have usually been clumsy and ineffective throughout the region. Time to keep hands off for a change.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

Joe Biden was ridiculed for saying it, but shortly after the US departs Iraq his statement that the US should have used its time there to accomplish the orderly splitting of this artificially created and hopelessly conflicted “country” into three parts may prove prophetic.

Posted by khiggi | Report as abusive

I’m from Iraq, I was born in the same province where Camp Ashraf is located. I live in Australia now. I remember as a teenager, POMI fighters on their tanks and armoured vehicles driving through my town in the 1980s, they were part of Iraqi army in its war with Iran.

During 1991 Iraqi uprising that Bush senior betrayed the Iraqi people, the POMI fighters killed hundreds of people in my home town, they were more ruthless than the Iraqi Republican army. My neighbour lost two of his daughters in a motor shells by POMI.
People in Camp Ashraf should be tried for their crimes against Iraqi people before they are released.

Im asking Bernd Debusmann, why he is not touching on the crimes committed by this group when they were an integral part of Saddam regime?

The only people in Iraq who have sympathy for this group are supporters of Saddam Hussein.
Current Iraqi leadership were in oppositions to Saddam Hussein, so they have bitter experiences with POMI, that’s why they don’t have any sympathy for them.

The Iraqi government asked them to leave to a third country, and they refused. Many of the camp residents are resident or citizen of Western countries.

Democratic administrations are bad news for oppressed people in Middle East, they always support dictators. Bill Clinton abandoned Iraqi people when he took over, he let the killing goes on in Bosnia and Rwanda. Even during the current Arab Spring the US has being reluctant to support the aspiration of people in the middle East.

If you want to win the war on terror, there is a cheap way to do it, support the Arab Spring and let pressure that is being building for decade to come out. The US is trying to stall the process in Egypt at the present, not a good start.

Obama is abandoning Iraq after the US spent 700 billion and lost 4500 soldiers, of course Iran will move in to fill the vacuum. Typical American foreign policy of running and cutting their losses, they did it in Afghanistan. Just for the sake of American soldier sacrifice, Obama should have kept American presence there.

Some comments here described Iraqi people as vicious animal that want to kill each other, this just confirms to me how ignorant the American people are including the author of this article about everything outside their state.

As a nation with two languages and two religious sects, we were boxed in a country by Briton for their own national interests, then ruled by ruthless dictators for another 80 years.
Any nations in our position will have ethnic conflicts. The problems we are dealing with now goes back to over 80 years ago thanks again to the Brits, but we will find a way out.

Posted by bluesky1 | Report as abusive

I’m from Iraq, I was born in the same province where Camp Ashraf is located. I live in Australia now. I remember as a teenager, POMI fighters on their tanks and armoured vehicles driving through my town in the 1980s, they were part of Iraqi army in its war with Iran.

During 1991 Iraqi uprising that Bush senior betrayed the Iraqi people, the POMI fighters killed hundreds of people in my home town, they were more ruthless than the Iraqi Republican army. My neighbour lost two of his daughters in a motor shells by POMI.
People in Camp Ashraf should be tried for their crimes against Iraqi people before they are released.

Im asking Bernd Debusmann, why he is not touching on the crimes committed by this group when they were an integral part of Saddam regime?

Posted by bluesky1 | Report as abusive

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[...] to surrender all their weapons. They did so after being promised that the US would protect them. Bernd Debusmann (Reuters) picks up the story there: After being vetted for possible involvement in terrorist activities, the PMOI [...]

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As an American I want no more military or financial involvement in any foreign country. Israel is the responsibility of Europe, they created the place.

Posted by tdk | Report as abusive

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I guess we just have to stay in Iraq after all. And in the other 700-1000 foreign bases. Geez, we should have troops everywhere to prevent evil all the time. Right?

The root of this project is US imperialism and duplicity. At some point this stupid game has to stop.

Posted by upstater | Report as abusive

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