For a group of 4,000 Iranian refugees currently living in Iraq, a United Nations report this week could prove crucial in determining whether they will live as virtual prisoners in the desert or be able to build new lives in freedom elsewhere. The refugees are members of a controversial Iranian dissident group, the Mujahedeen-e-Khalk (MEK), which is currently listed on the U.S. Foreign Terrorist Organizations list. That listing itself is controversial. The United Kingdom, the European Union and a number of other nations have removed the group from their lists of terrorist organizations, and the U.S. may soon be forced to do so as well. A successful suit by the MEK resulted in a recent order from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit requiring Secretary of State Hillary Clinton either to delist the group or produce evidence that the organization remains a current and credible threat to American interests. But until the issue is resolved, the fate of the MEK members living in Iraq remains precarious.
The MEK members originally came to Iraq in 1986 during the Iran-Iraq war. As Iranians opposed to the theocratic regime in Iran, the MEK proved useful allies to Saddam Hussein. They were allowed to build a modern city near the Iraq-Iran border, Camp Ashraf, which was allegedly used as a base for MEK fighters to launch attacks on the Iranian regime. During the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the MEK remained neutral and eventually turned over their arms to the U.S. military. According to testimony by Brig. Gen. David Phillips, the head of the American military police in Iraq, his troops conducted a thorough, door-to-door inspection of Ashraf to ensure compliance. Until 2009, the U.S. military retained a presence in the camp, and those on the ground reported full cooperation from the MEK.
However, things changed dramatically when the U.S. turned over control of the camp to the Iraqis in 2009. Instead of protecting the residents, as the Iraqi government promised when they took control of Camp Ashraf in 2009, Iraqi forces attacked Camp Ashraf twice, killing 49 unarmed people and injuring hundreds of others. Then the Iraqis insisted that the residents be moved from Camp Ashraf to an abandoned American base, Camp Liberty. The terrorized residents were reluctant to leave behind the oasis they had built in the desert, but they had little choice. With pressure coming from the U.S. state department and American assurances that they would be safe and secure in their new home, Camp Ashraf residents began moving to Camp Liberty last year.
More than three thousand of the residents have now relocated to Camp Liberty, but the place belies its name. Not only do the refugees lack freedom of movement or the right to have visitors, Camp Liberty lacks adequate water, sanitation and electricity, making life nearly unbearable for its residents. The residents have asked permission to be able to bring construction vehicles, large generators, specially equipped vans for the elderly and disabled and personal belongings and cars from Camp Ashraf, but the Iraqi government has prevented them from doing so despite assurances to the contrary.
In December 2011, the U.N. signed a memorandum of understanding with the government of Iraq guaranteeing humanitarian protection for the residents of Camps Ashraf and Liberty. But MEK members fear that the report to be presented to the U.N. this week on whether the MOU is being observed will not fully reveal the dire conditions under which residents in Camp Liberty live. Yet, the U.N. and the U.S. government continue to push for the remaining residents of Camp Ashraf to leave their belongings, their vehicles, and the comfortable living conditions in which they have lived for two decades and resettle in Camp Liberty, which lacks basic infrastructure and humane living conditions.
The MEK have asked for basic guarantees if they are to abandon Camp Ashraf for Camp Liberty: to be allowed to bring air conditioners, trucks, forklifts, vans for the disabled, and passenger cars; to build footpaths, ramps and porches or awnings on buildings for shade; to connect Camp Liberty to the Baghdad water supply or allow residents to pump water and purify it on the premises; to allow residents to sell and buy from local merchants; and to negotiate with the Iraqi government for sale of the property and assets remaining in Camp Ashraf.
There are many humanitarian crises in the world today, and few of them have easy solutions. But the crisis at Camps Ashraf and Liberty are resolvable -- but only if the U.S. and U.N. insist that the residents of those camps be accorded their rights.