x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Iraq raid on Iranian exile camp

The Mujahadeen e-Khalq (MEK), a group of Iranian exiles based in Iraq which the US government has designated as a terrorist organisation since 1997, has come into direct conflict with Iraqi authorities. The Iraqi government has denied claims that Iranian pressure prompted a raid on the MEK camp, saying that Iraqi security forces were merely seeking to extend sovereignty over all Iraqi territory.

The Mujahadeen e-Khalq (MEK), a group of Iranian exiles based in Iraq which the US government has designated as a terrorist organisation since 1997, has come into direct conflict with Iraqi authorities. The Iraqi government has denied claims that Iranian pressure prompted a raid on the MEK camp, and said Iraqi security forces were merely seeking to extend sovereignty over all Iraqi territory. "Iraqi forces stormed a camp of more than 3,000 members of an Iranian dissident group that until recently had been protected by the US military, in the biggest unilateral operation since American forces withdrew from Iraq's cities a month ago," The Wall Street Journal reported. "Iran has long demanded that Iraq take action against the ... MEK, but the US had stood in its way. "The willingness to go ahead with the raid appears to point to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's balancing act between his two most important allies, as the US gradually pulls out of the country and neighbouring Iran seeks to expand its influence. "Iraqi forces seized control of the camp by force after the camp's leaders refused requests by Iraqi police to enter the camp peacefully to establish a police station there, according to the top US commander in Iraq, Gen Ray Odierno, and a spokesman for Prime Minister Maliki." Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported: "US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged the Iraqi government and an Iranian opposition group to exercise restraint as a second day of clashes continued in Camp Ashraf. " 'We are urging restraint on both sides,' Clinton said, while adding the Iraqi government now has the responsibility for security at the camp." Agence France Presse said: "Iran's parliament speaker Ali Larijani on Wednesday welcomed the takeover by Iraqi security forces... " 'Even though it is rather late, the action by the Iraqi government is praiseworthy,' the semi-official Mehr news agency quoted Larijani as saying. "A leading Iranian MP also welcomed the raid by Iraqi forces on the Ashraf camp and said its residents should be handed over to Tehran. " 'This move is effective in improving the security of Iraq and its neighbours,' said Hossein Sobhani-Nia, who is a member of parliament's national security committee. " 'But we still want the hypocrites to be handed over to Iran so we can investigate the crimes of this terrorist group,' he added, using the Islamic regime's usual term of abuse for the Mujahedeen." The Middle East historian, Juan Cole, wrote: "Now that US troops have ceased their independent patrols in Iraqi cities, the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has decided to move against the group. The Ministry of the Interior security forces are alleged to have been deeply infiltrated by the Badr Corps of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a leading party in parliament and ally of al-Maliki that was formed in Iran by Iraqi expatriates under the auspices of Ayatollah Khomeini. Badr in turn was from the 1980s through 2003 essentially a unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. "Likely the victory of the hard liners and the IRGC in Iran's struggle over the outcome of the June 12 presidential election has put them in a strong position to ask their Iraqi counterparts and former colleagues to move against the MEK. "The UN has instructed Iraq not to return the MEK members to Iran, where they would face torture and possibly summary execution, and what to do with the camp inmates is as controversial for Iraq as what to do with the Guantanamo prisoners is in the US." Time magazine noted: "There's little love in Iraq for the MEK, which was welcomed by Saddam Hussein in the mid-'80s, when he was at war with Iran, and supplied with a training camp and armaments. The group is accused of repaying its benefactor by helping quash Kurdish and Shi'ite rebellions - charges the MEK has denied. "For now, the US hasn't stepped into the fray, insisting that the situation is a matter for the Iraqi government to handle. 'This is completely within their purview,' State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters in Washington, adding that the US had received assurances that Baghdad would not forcibly transfer Ashraf's residents, especially to countries like Iran where they may face persecution or physical harm. "The MEK has long said that it will not leave its 'home' in Ashraf. But on Monday it indicated - for the first time - that its members in Ashraf may be willing to return to Iran if strict, and many would say unrealistic, conditions are met. The group's elusive Paris-based leader, Maryam Rajavi, said in a statement that MEK members would return if Tehran promised in writing to the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the US and Iraq that the MEK 'would enjoy immunity from arrest, prosecution, torture, execution, and formation of any criminal record and that they will enjoy freedom of speech.' "There appear to be few incentives for Iran to sign such declarations and allow potential agitators back home, especially now. Relocation to other countries is a more likely option, especially given that the European Union and Britain have removed the organisation from their terrorist lists, potentially paving the way for the MEK's transfer." The Los Angeles Times said: "The Iraqi government refuted suggestions today that Iranian pressure had prompted a raid on a camp belonging to an Iranian opposition group, saying that Iraqi security forces are merely seeking to extend sovereignty over all Iraqi territory. The MEK... claimed that seven of its members died in clashes with Iraqi security forces after Iraqi police attempted to enter its camp in Diyala province Tuesday to open a police station. " 'The Iraqi government is determined to establish its sovereignty over all positions and facilities that were under the control of foreign forces,' government spokesman Ali Dabbagh told reporters. 'The government wants to open an Iraqi police station inside the camp to impose the rule of law and establish the rule of the state.' "Dabbagh said Iranian citizens in the camp would not be forced to return to Iran, where they fear they would be punished." In 2006, Jay Solomon, reporting for The Wall Street Journal wrote: "For more than a decade, the MEK has been employed as a political football in the diplomatic games played between Washington and Tehran, say current and former US officials. The Clinton administration placed the MEK on the State Department's terrorism list in 1997, as Washington sought to appeal to moderate leaders inside the theocratic government in Tehran. A blacklisting of the MEK was among the actions the Iranians sought in exchange for better relations, these officials say. "The State Department's 2006 terrorism report says the MEK has been launching attacks on Western and Iranian targets since the 1970s. In the last years of the Shah's rule, elements of the MEK assassinated US security advisers and military contractors, and assisted in the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran. It subsequently turned on Iran's new theocratic government due to ideological differences and launched bombing campaigns against senior Iranian officials. "Under pressure inside Iran, MEK fighters shifted their base to Iraq, conducting operations from there against Iran's Islamic government throughout the 1980s and '90s. Most of their activities were concentrated on Iranian military installations and commanders. But the US also accuses the MEK of conducting terrorist strikes outside of the Middle East, including simultaneous attacks in 1992 on Iranian embassies and installations in 13 countries."

pwoodward@thenational.ae