It’s been two years since U.S. troops left Iraq, having rid the country of Saddam Hussein and ostensibly leaving behind a democracy that would be a model for the region. We say ostensibly because that certainly hasn’t been the case. Our efforts on that front appear to have been in vain.
Iraq is a fractured country, victimized by almost daily bombings, its government increasingly aligned with Iran’s despotic regime.
Who is most to blame? Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister the United States helped elect — and a man who has done much to dishonor our service to Iraq, standing by as more than 7,000 of his countrymen have been killed this year in suicide bombings and other attacks.
Yet on Nov. 1, President Barack Obama welcomed Maliki to the White House. The Oval Office meeting was reportedly wide-ranging, covering topics including Iran’s use of Iraq as a corridor to send weapons to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. We hope there was more than passing reference made to the fate of several thousand Iranian dissidents who have lived in Iraq for more than a quarter-century and who are currently under siege.
These individuals are members of the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran, known as the MEK. The group, which was active in the 1979 revolution that toppled the shah, opposes Islamic fundamentalism and espouses democracy and gender equality. For this, the mullahs in Tehran have imprisoned or executed thousands of MEK members over the years.
The MEK grew in prominence in the 1980s and 1990s after mass executions started launching attacks on the Iranian government, military and suppressive targets. The United States designated the MEK as a terrorist organization in 1997.
But four years later, the group renounced the use of violence. Following the MEK’s removal from British and European Union blacklists in 2008 and 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last fall also removed the group’s terrorist designation.
Regardless of what one thinks of the MEK and Iranian politics, its members don’t deserve what has happened to them since the United States left Iraq.
The story begins at Camp Ashraf, a settlement the MEK built in eastern Iraq when a few thousand of its members fled Iran in 1986. When the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Saddam regime in 2003, the inhabitants of Camp Ashraf turned over their arms in exchange for guaranteed protection by U.S. forces from the threat of its sworn enemy, the Iranian regime and its agents in Iraq.
When it came time for the United States to depart — at Maliki’s insistence — the Iraqi government promised to continue to protect the group from the threat of Iranian regime, but that was not to be.
Since U.S. troops left in late 2011, there has been nothing but bad news coming out of Camp Ashraf. Maliki’s troops attacked Ashraf twice, in July 2009 and April 2011, and tried to force the MEK out of Iraq entirely. Finally, Maliki settled for a deal, brokered by the United States and the United Nations in December 2011, for more than 3,000 MEK members to move to an abandoned American military base near Baghdad named Camp Liberty.
The conditions at Camp Liberty have been grim and lacked even the most basic needs such as running water and electricity. And no one from outside the camp may visit the residents. The MEK members were promised they would be transferred to a third country outside of Iraq, but that process has been woefully slow.
The worst blow came in early September, when Iraqi troops attacked a group of the Iranians who had stayed at Camp Ashraf to protect its assets. Fifty-two people were murdered when Iraqi forces raided the camp. According to the U.N. report on Sept. 2, “All the deceased appeared to have suffered gunshot wounds, the majority of them in the head and the upper body, and several with their hands tied. Seven MEK members disappeared, apparently abducted by Iraqi government agents.
While Maliki was in Washington, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the Obama administration “remains deeply concerned” about the seven abductees from Camp Ashraf as well as about the MEK members living in misery at Camp Liberty.
But “concern” is insufficient when the lives of seven kidnapping victims hang in the balance.
Some will argue that death, deprivation and kidnapping are unavoidable, given the deteriorating conditions in Iraq. There is, however, a critical distinction: These people were not targeted by unknown terrorists. This was mass murder at the hands of the Maliki government.
Based on available evidence, including a Sept. 19 statement by Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, the abductees are still being held by the Iraqi government. Their release should be a prerequisite to any new U.S. assistance, particularly new weapons, that the Obama administration might give to Maliki.
Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman put it well when she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Oct. 3 about what happened at Camp Ashraf: “We need to do anything” possible, she said, “to make good on the word we gave to the MEK.”
When America makes a promise, it should be kept.
Retired Gen. Hugh Shelton is the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Retired Gen. James Conway is former commandant of the Marine Corps.
Visitors get their first look at the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, which opened to the public on Monday, Oct. 6, 2014. The new memorial is located off Independence Ave. SW between the Rayburn House Office Building and HHS. Buy photo here.