It was at 11 p.m. on Halloween, Oct. 31, that Iraqi security forces made their latest menacing incursion into Camp Ashraf. Thirty military vehicles accompanied by 10 police cars entered the camp northeast of Baghdad where 3,400 Iranian dissidents live, intimidating residents with glaring lights and deafening noise and conducting exercises around their homes. Simultaneously, the 300 loudspeakers placed around Ashraf to pile on the psychological pressure stepped up their barrage of threats and insults.
This bullying show of force followed a press conference in Baghdad earlier in the day at which Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s foreign minister, promised his visiting Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi, that Iraq would keep its promise of closing Camp Ashraf by Dec. 31, which is also the date that the last U.S. soldier is due to leave Iraq. The world now has less than two months in which to stop this closure turning into a possible massacre. After two armed assaults by the Iraqi Army on the camp in 2009 and last April -- when 36 people, including eight women, were killed and 300 were injured by soldiers carrying U.S.-made weapons -- there are no grounds for believing that the December closure will be carried out peacefully and humanely.
The Ashraf residents, protected persons under the Fourth Geneva Convention, are members of the principal Iranian opposition movement, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK).
The Iranian Resistance says it fears the clerical regime in Iran and the Iraqi government are setting the stage for a new bloodbath in Ashraf and it is urging the U.S., the European Union and the United Nations to prevent it, calling for the implementation of the appeal of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in a report to the Security Council on July 7 in which he asked “all stakeholders involved to increase their efforts to explore options and seek a consensual solution.”
One of the stakeholders is the United States, which earlier promised Ashraf residents its protection. But so far President Barack Obama has shown little sign of being willing to put the necessary pressure on Baghdad to make sure that Ashraf residents are treated humanely.
During the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Ashraf residents remained neutral. The following year, the U.S. gave written guarantees to all of them that, in return for a voluntary disarmament, the U.S. would protect them. But, in early 2009, the U.S. handed over responsibility for the security of the camp to Iraqi forces. Since then, apart from the two violent military assaults, the camp has been under a punishing blockade, with residents deprived of basic services, such as access to proper medical help.
At the behest of Tehran, the Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki set Dec. 31 as the final deadline for the camp to close. Iran, rattled by fears of contagion of the Arab Spring and facing a growing international crisis caused by its drive to develop nuclear weapons and by exposure of its terrorist activities -- the most recent being a foiled plot against the Saudi ambassador to Washington -- wants Ashraf wiped out at any cost.
In September, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, stating that the Iranian dissidents are asylum-seekers entitled to international protection, urged that Ashraf’s closure be delayed. Still, Baghdad insists that the December deadline be met. Iraq has not the slightest interest in letting the U.N.H.C.R. carry out its mission. Rather, by refusing to cooperate, it is creating the pretext to claim that no progress has been made and that the only solution is the closure of the camp by force.
One way out of this dreadful situation would be to station U.N. monitors in Ashraf alongside peacekeeping forces to allow the U.N.H.C.R. to do its work until the final resettlement of Ashraf residents.
The U.S. may be leaving Iraq but it still has a lot of leverage vis-à-vis the government in Baghdad and at the U.N. It could and it should make a move.
As things are evolving and if Maliki gets away with his plan to impose the deadline, just as the Christmas and New Year holidays are in full swing, the prospect is that the world will sit and watch while men and women are killed in cold blood or mutilated, crushed by U.S.-supplied armoured personnel carriers.
Speaking to the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs on Oct. 27, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington had sought assurances from Iraq “that it will treat Ashraf residents humanely, that it will not transfer the residents to a country that they may have reasons to fear.”
The time for words is over. Concrete actions are now essential to safeguard the residents of Camp Ashraf. The U.S. has the power to help them. If not, 2012, a crucial election year, risks starting with a tragedy that the world could have stopped.