(Editor’s note: Adds ICRC comment.)
(CNSNews.com) – After three days of clashes and at least six deaths, Iraqi forces have largely gained control of an encampment of exiled Iranians whose continued presence inside Iraq has long been a sore point for Tehran.
The State Department said diplomats had stressed to the Iraqis the importance of fulfilling a pledge to the U.S. to treat the more than 3,000 Iranian dissidents “humanely.” The U.S. added that it was “monitoring the situation” and providing medical assistance to those wounded in the confrontations.
Although the U.S. formally transferred authority of Camp Ashraf in Diyala province to Iraq on January 1, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government waited to move against the camp until U.S. combat forces completed their withdrawal from Iraqi urban areas, a milestone that reinforced Iraq’s sovereignty and responsibility for security.
It was the second major step since the troop pullback taken by the Shi’ite-dominated government in Baghdad to remove a lingering irritant in Iran-Iraq relations. Earlier this month it freed and handed over to Iran five men held by U.S. forces since January 2007 on suspicion of facilitating violence against coalition troops on behalf of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Qods Force. Iran denied the allegations, saying the men were “diplomats.”
North of Baghdad and some 50 miles from the Iranian border, Camp Ashraf has been home since the 1980s to members of the controversial Iranian opposition group known as the Mujaheddin-e Khalq (MEK or MKO), or People’s Mujaheddin Organization of Iran.
Reviled by Tehran for aligning itself with Saddam Hussein during the bloody Iran-Iraq war and launching attacks against Iran, the MEK together with its associated National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) is designated a terrorist organization by the State Department, but does have some sympathizers in Congress. (Britain last year removed MEK from its terror list and the European Union followed suit early this year.)
The NCRI has provided the West with valuable intelligence on Iran. A then-senior member of the group, Alireza Jafarzadeh, in 2002 helped to uncover nearly two decades of Iranian clandestine nuclear activity, triggering the still-unresolved standoff between Tehran and the international community.
After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam, the MEK were disarmed by agreement and confined to Camp Ashraf. The U.S. subsequently recognized the inhabitants of the camp as “protected persons” under the Geneva Conventions.
Iraqi forces tried to enter Ashraf on Tuesday with the stated intention of establishing a police station inside the camp, but after residents barred the way, troops used clubs, pepper gas and water cannon against them.
The Iraqi government admitted to the Associated Press on Thursday, for the first time, that six Iranians had been killed and 35 wounded in the clashes, and said the cause of death was being investigated. The Paris-based NCRI leadership claimed that at least 12 people were killed.
Iran’s official Fars news agency, citing sources “close to the Iraqi police,” reported that some of the top MEK leaders at the camp had been injured, and that one of them, named as Zohreh Qaemi, a deputy to NCRI leader Maryam Rajavi, was in a coma.
The NCRI earlier confirmed that Qaemi had been shot, but gave no further details.
Iraqi troops have not allowed foreign journalists into the camp, according to media organizations and the press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders.
The NCRI claimed Thursday that Iraqi forces had permitted Iranian intelligence and Qods Force members, posing as staff from Iranian media organizations the English-language Press TV and Arabic-language Al-Alam TV, to enter.
“The people working in both stations are actually plainclothes agents and forces affiliated with the office of the mullahs’ Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei,” it said.
Iran’s Mehr news agency quoted parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani as calling the Iraqi move to take control of the camp “praiseworthy,” if a little late.
The Tehran Times, considered a mouthpiece of the Iranian foreign ministry, pondered the wider implications of this week’s events.
“Many political analysts had said the United States had intended to use the Camp Ashraf [MEK] members as pawns to pressure Iran, so this development will change the political calculus of the region,” it said.
An editorial in Iran Daily, a paper published by the official IRNA news agency, said it was well known that the continued presence of MEK members inside Iraq “was part of a U.S. ploy to use Camp Ashraf as a trump card in ‘future deals’ with Tehran.”
‘Iran, or a third country’
Since January the NCRI has warned repeatedly that the Iraqi authorities may forcibly repatriate the Camp Ashraf inhabitants.
Lending weight to the organization’s claims, Maliki’s national security advisor, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, told Iran’s al-Alam TV on March 8, “We have a clear and precise policy regarding the expulsion of this terrorist organization from Iraq and returning the residents of Camp Ashraf to Iran and or a third country.”
The U.S. government says Baghdad has made a commitment.
“The government has stated to us that no Camp Ashraf resident will be forcibly transferred to a country where they have reason to fear persecution on the basis of their political beliefs – political opinions or religious beliefs – or whether there are substantial grounds for believing they would be tortured,” State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said at a press briefing.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also told reporters Wednesday that the U.S. expected Baghdad to “show restraint” and not forcibly transfer any of the Iranian dissidents to a country where they could be mistreated or killed – then added, “But it is now the responsibility of the government of Iraq.”
In a U.S. House floor speech Wednesday, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said the Iraqi action at Camp Ashraf “appears to be an ugly attempt by the Iraqi government to appease the Iranian regime.”
The Iranian exiles “have been a vital source of intelligence information on the Iranian regime’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs and other important intelligence information,” he said, charging that Tehran was putting pressure on Iraq to hand them over.
Diaz-Balart urged President Obama to demand that the Iraqi government immediately end its actions in Camp Ashraf. “We must ensure the protection that the exiles were promised by the United States.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross’ Iraq delegation said last December it had received assurances from both the U.S. and Iraqi governments that residents of Camp Ashraf “will be treated in accordance with international humanitarian law and with the principle of non-refoulement in particular.”
The international law principle of non-refoulement prohibits a country to transferring people to another country if there is a risk of ill-treatment or persecution on account of race, religion or political opinion.
ICRC Middle East spokesperson Dorothea Krimitsas said Friday the organization was in close contact with the Iraqi authorities and residents of Ashraf, following up on this week’s events and holding “confidential dialogue” about the Iranians’ future.
She said the ICRC in particular “has regularly reminded the authorities concerned of the obligation to respect the principle of non-refoulement.” Krimitsas added that the ICRC could not be more specific about the dialogue, which would not be made public in line with its usual working procedures.