Wall Street Journal: Sometime in the past six months, the government of Nouri al-Maliki buried 52 bodies in an undisclosed location in Iraq. The 46 men and six women had been members of the Iranian opposition group that since 1986 has maintained a presence inside Iraq. 

 

The U.S. promised to ensure the safety of an Iranian exile group. But then we pulled out.

The Wall Street Journal

By Sohrab Ahmari

Sometime in the past six months, the government of Nouri al-Maliki buried 52 bodies in an undisclosed location in Iraq. The 46 men and six women had been members of the Mujahedeen-e Khalq, an Iranian opposition group that since 1986 has maintained a presence inside Iraq. They were killed in an assault last fall on Camp Ashraf, the MEK's historic base roughly 60 miles north of Baghdad.

Photographs taken by survivors show the victims were shot in the head or neck, or both; some had been handcuffed before being executed. Seven other Ashraf residents, one man and six women, were taken hostage by the assault force, never to be heard from again.

The Iraqi government has offered contradictory explanations about the massacre. "Not a single [Iraqi] soldier entered Camp Ashraf," Haqi al-Sharifi, one of the camp's Iraqi overseers, told Agence France-Press at the time. Other Iraqi officials told Reuters that Iraqi security forces had fired on MEK residents, but did so after the residents stormed one of the camp's entrances. Still other officials blamed accidental oil-barrel explosions.

Mr. Maliki's office issued a statement on the day of the massacre calling for the deportation of MEK members "who are on Iraqi soil illegally" while stressing Iraq's "commitment to the safety of souls on its territory." To date, no official inquest has been carried out by Iraqi authorities, the U.S. government or the United Nations, which jointly share responsibility for the safety of Iraq-based MEK members under the Fourth Geneva Convention and international laws governing the rights of asylum seekers.

Enlarge Image

The roses are placed besides the portraits of victims killed on Camp Ashraf. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The Obama administration has backed Baghdad's position on the Camp Ashraf massacre. "We have no credible information indicating that the Government of Iraq (GOI) was involved with any activities regarding the attack at Camp Ashraf," a State Department official told me in an email last month.

Yet evidence suggests that at the very least the Maliki government was aware of the unprovoked killing of unarmed civilians at Ashraf. And America's abandonment of the Ashraf victims dulls the glimmer of future U.S. security assurances to people weighing the risks to their lives of cooperating with Washington.

The MEK's story is as cruel and complex as modern Iran's. The organization was formed in 1965 to oppose the shah's regime. Shiite Islam practiced as a revolutionary faith, the MEK's founders concluded, would propel the masses toward a just society.

In the years before the 1979 revolution, the MEK allied with Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamists and carried out operations targeting the shah's security apparatus, as well as Western business interests and U.S. civilian and military personnel in Iran. These included the attempted kidnapping of a U.S. ambassador in 1971 and the assassination of two U.S. military advisers in 1975.

But the triumph of Iran's revolution broke the Islamist-leftist bond that gave birth to the MEK. Khomeini denounced the group as "hypocrites" and "eclectics," and the new regime arrested, tortured and executed thousands of activists, including university students and teenagers. Exiled from Iran, the MEK during the Iran-Iraq war fought alongside Saddam Hussein's troops, launching some of the war's final offensives into Iranian territory.

The American officers who led the invasion of Iraq in 2003 knew little of this history.

During the initial invasion, U.S. forces attacked Ashraf. The MEK residents readily surrendered. "I quickly realized that this was not a threat group," says Col. Wesley Martin, who was the senior antiterrorism/force-protection officer for all coalition forces in Iraq and would later serve as commander of Camp Ashraf. By the end of 2003, MEK members in Iraq had turned in all of their weapons, renounced armed struggle, consolidated themselves at Ashraf and submitted to extensive background checks.

The Multinational Force-Iraq, in a July 2004 letter, commended the Ashraf residents for "rejecting violence and terrorism" and confirmed their status as protected persons under the Fourth Geneva Convention. The residents were issued "Protected Person" cards bearing U.S. military-police insignia, and under the command of Lt. Col. Thomas Cantwell U.S. forces would guard the perimeter of Ashraf while permitting the 3,400 residents to operate the camp independently.

Both Cols. Martin and Cantwell developed personal bonds with MEK members while supervising Ashraf. "We will never abandon you," Col. Martin told the residents upon departing Iraq in late 2006. As he left Ashraf in 2003, Col. Cantwell recalls, MEK member Hossein Madani told him that the Ashraf residents "have no voice in the world" and asked the American "to be a voice for them."

Hossein Madani was one of the 52 residents killed in the Sept. 1, 2013, assault.

In 2009, the U.S. turned authority over the MEK to the Iraqi government. This, despite multiple statements issued by Iraqi officials over the years calling into question the residents' status as protected persons and threatening to evict them. The U.N. declared the residents in 2011 to be asylum seekers entitled to "benefit from basic protection of their security." The next year, the State Department removed the MEK from its list of designated terrorist organizations (the group had been added in 1997).

Then on the morning of Sept. 1, 2013, a team of around 120 heavily armed, uniformed men entered the camp and spent the next two hours hunting down residents. The notion that these attackers didn't belong to, or weren't abetted by, Iraqi security forces is implausible. For starters, the isolated, 14-square-mile camp itself is surrounded by Iraqi military and police installations.

"The Iraqi army now has a headquarters where my headquarters used to be located," says Col. Cantwell. "From my headquarters I could see across the entire camp." That such a large number of attackers would be able to enter Ashraf, fire weapons and set off explosives without detection by Iraqi forces strains credulity.

The attackers' methods, as reported by survivors and captured on video, also suggest Iraqi-government involvement. Col. Martin testified last month before a subcommittee of the Canadian Parliament: "Those assault forces, or their trainers, had been educated by American Special Response Team specialists. Their body movements were developed in the United States. . . . They copied our movements too well to have been trained by anyone else."

Finally there is the Maliki government's response to the attacks. "There was never a real, professional investigation—no forensics," says Col. Martin. More peculiar still, Baghdad initially denied knowledge about the seven Ashraf residents taken by the assault force. Yet 12 days after the attack, a spokesman for the country's human-rights ministry confirmed that the seven hostages were detained by Iraqi security forces, according to Radio Free Iraq, the U.S.-funded broadcaster. "We're not going to see those people again," says Col. Martin.

The MEK's history and ideology are troubling. But that doesn't excuse the U.S. failure to protect vulnerable people whom Washington induced to disarm in return for explicit security assurances. Baghdad's mistreatment of the MEK, meanwhile, is symptomatic of Iraq's drift away from Washington and toward Tehran.

Mr. Ahmari is an assistant books editor at the Journal. 

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