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.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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