A raid by Iraqi security forces on a camp of Iranian dissidents is widely seen as a sign that Iraqi authorities are establishing their independence as the U.S. occupation winds down – and tilting instead towards Iran.
There are unconfirmed reports of injuries and abuses coming from Camp Ashraf, the enclave populated by members of the cultish Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), also known as the People’s Mujahideen of Iran, an Iranian opposition group considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. since 1997.
The MEK said that security forces killed 12. After initially denying any deaths, the Iraqi government confirmed seven deaths on Thursday, according to the Reuters news agency. Hundreds are believed injured.
The U.S. State Department confirmed Thursday that Iraqi forces had restated a pledge to treat MEK members "humanely," and that U.S. forces had been allowed into the camp to administer medical help to those injured in the raid.
The MEK has enjoyed limited support in the U.S. from proponents of regime change in Iran – mostly a small cadre of neoconservatives. It was a former MEK spokesperson who first made public the Iranian nuclear facility at Natanz in 2003.
However, the group is extremely unpopular in the Islamic Republic because it fought with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the 1980s during the bloody Iran-Iraq war.
The raid is seen as something of an embarrassment to the U.S., which had opposed action against the camp. The attack occurred while U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was visiting Iraq, though he had no advance knowledge of the large operation.
The top U.S. military officer in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, told reporters on Tuesday that he had no advance knowledge of the attack.
But authority for the camp ultimately belongs to Iraq.
"Although the U.S. government remains engaged and concerned about this issue, it is a matter now for the government of Iraq to resolve in accordance with its laws," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday, urging "restraint on both sides."
Amid reports that the Iraqi government intends to close the camp, U.S. officials have said that they received assurances that MEK members would not be deported to Iran because they would face a credible risk of mistreatment there.
The human rights group Amnesty International called on the Iraqi government to look into allegations of excessive force and release the whereabouts of 50 detainees that apparently have not been accounted for, and "ensure that they are protected from torture or other ill-treatment, as well as from forcible return to Iran."
The clashes this week were set off by an Iraqi request to allow national police into the camp. After the MEK rebuffed the demand, Iraq entered the unarmed camp by force. Videos shot by MEK members circulated online showed people being sprayed with hoses and beaten by soldiers with batons.
When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, the MEK was disarmed. The 3,400-member group reportedly possessed more than 2,000 tanks, and other artillery and large weapons.
After being disarmed, the group was protected by the U.S. under the Geneva Conventions. However, the camp came under the Iraqi government’s authority as part of the U.S.-Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) approved late last year.
With the U.S. presence in Iraq clearly giving way to Iraqi authorities – exactly one month ago, U.S. forces withdrew from Iraqi cities and security was handed to the Iraqi government as part of the SOFA – Iraq has been acting boldly to bolster its sovereign credentials.
The raid is also widely seen as a part of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s balancing act between his allies in the U.S. and Iran, a fellow Shia Muslim regional power seeking to expand its influence. Iran housed Maliki’s party in exile and has continued to support it since it returned to Iraq after U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein.
On Jul. 10, five Iranians detained by the U.S. in Iraq for more than two years were suddenly released. The move was seen as a bow to pressure from Iraqi politicians who are seeking closer ties with Iran.
Iran has long sought the expulsion of the MEK from Iraq, where Camp Ashraf lies a little more than 100 kms from the Iranian border and just 96 kilometers from Baghdad.
Though Iraqi authorities denied Wednesday that they had raided the camp at Iran’s behest, the move was lauded by Iranian Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani.
"Although this measure was taken late by Iraq, it is admirable that they have decided to clear Iraq of terrorists," he reportedly said.
Maryam Rajavi, the Paris-based leader of the Iranian opposition group the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), said that the Iraqi government is doing the bidding of Iranian Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The NCRI is an umbrella group whose most significant member is the MEK, for which it is believed to be a front.
On her website, Rajavi called the raid "a war crime, a crime against humanity, and a futile attempt by Khamenei to compensate for his defeat in the face of the nationwide uprising" – referring the recent unrest in Iran over the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
When Iranian authorities cracked down on protesters, the MEK was one of the foreign-based groups they accused of fomenting demonstrations. Iranian authorities refer to the MEK by the Farsi word for "hypocrites," as Larijani did Wednesday.
Some U.S. neoconservatives and their allies, who have long advocated for imposed regime change in Iran, think that despite the group’s unpopularity in Iran, it would make an ideal vehicle for creating a viable exiled opposition.
One longtime supporter of the MEK, Raymond Tanter, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a Georgetown University professor, formed the Iran Policy Committee (IPC) in 2005 with the aim of building support for Iranian dissidents.
On Wednesday, the IPC released a statement condemning the attacks, and suggested that the blame for them should be put at Obama’s doorstep.
"After all the American blood spilled and U.S. treasure spent on the transformation of Iraq into a moderate American ally in the Middle East," Tanter said in the release, "it would be the height of irony if the Obama administration remained silent in face of the humanitarian tragedy that is unfolding in Iraq with the assault of Iraqi Security Forces on unarmed Iranian dissidents."
According to the advisory council chair of Tanter’s group, Gen. Thomas McInerney (Ret.), Obama may be open to prosecution, though the U.S. was not in control of the camp at the time of the raid, saying, ."..those who transferred responsibility may be subject to being prosecuted for committing war crimes."
"The Obama administration may be ultimately prosecutable for dereliction of its responsibility to make sure the Iraqi Security Forces treat those formerly under U.S. protection in a humane fashion," McInerney said. "As the Iraqis attack Iranian dissidents, it opens the door to prosecutable offenses on the part of the Obama administration."
In 2005, Tanter suggested using nuclear "bunker-buster" bombs against Iran’s underground facilities, noting that while the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) bans the use of such weapons against non-nuclear states, "such a prohibition might not apply as much to Israel." Israel is not a signatory to the NPT.
(Inter Press Service)