x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Iraq's stalemate over the MEK

Iraq's prime minister finds himself torn between his two closest allies, Iran and the US, over plans to relocate members of the People's Mujahadin Organisation of Iran, a force used by Saddam Hussein against Shiites.

Members of the Iranian opposition group, the People's Mujahadin Organisation of Iran, demonstrate against a proposal to move them from Camp Ashraf, north of Baghdad, where they were installed by Saddam Hussein's regime in 1985.
Members of the Iranian opposition group, the People's Mujahadin Organisation of Iran, demonstrate against a proposal to move them from Camp Ashraf, north of Baghdad, where they were installed by Saddam Hussein's regime in 1985.

Muthana // If Nouri al Maliki did not have sufficient problems managing his impoverished and war-torn country, the Iraqi prime minister continues to be plagued by an apparently impossible question involving an Iranian opposition group.

The group, the People's Mujahadin Organisation of Iran, also known as the MEK, is unpopular inside Iraq and considered a terrorist organisation in both Washington and Tehran. Yet Mr al Maliki finds himself in the awkward position of having no choice but to host 3,500 MEK members, currently living on a base north of Baghdad. Saddam Hussein originally granted the Iranian fighters sanctuary when their organisation sided with him to make war on Tehran in the 1980s. After the dictator was deposed in 2003, the MEK members, by then effectively refugees but classified as terrorists by the US military, were disarmed and detained at Camp Ashraf.

In reality it was a measure taken largely for their own protection. In the new Iraq, allies of Saddam had few friends and the MEK is seen by many here - including some of those in the new ruling parties - as a tool used by Saddam for violent repression of Shiites. The MEK, which has renounced violence, denies such allegations, but the fact remains that with Saddam Hussein no longer in power they are officially unwelcome in Iraq.

Iran has made it clear it would like to take custody of the MEK exiles, but the West has pressured Baghdad not to return them, fearing they would be arrested and persecuted by the Iranian authorities. That has left Mr al Maliki's government facing irreconcilable facts. In essence, he is now providing a safe haven for a group considered terrorists by his two closest allies, Iran and the United States, with one ally, Tehran, wanting them extradited and the other, Washington, insisting they must not be extradited.

When the Iraqi army took over lead responsibility for security this year, it was also put in charge of Camp Ashraf, to the dismay of Ashraf's inhabitants. In July, Iraqi units forcibly entered the camp, reneging on promises given to US commanders that they would continue to protect those living there. At least 10 MEK members were reported killed in the raids. Under the glare of critical international publicity, and with Washington now embarrassed that the people it had been guarding were so quickly and openly abused, the attack on the MEK petered out.

A new strategy was devised and last week the Iraqi government indicated it would shut Camp Ashraf - which has over the years developed into a well-resourced small town - and move the occupants to Muthana, a sparsely populated desert province in southern Iraq. Such a prospect was, however, resoundingly rejected by local officials in Muthana, who warned it could spark violence in what has long been one of Iraq's most peaceful areas.

Ibrahim Salman al Mayali, the provincial governor, said he would do all he could to oppose a relocation. "Our people will not welcome a terrorist organisation," he said. "Saddam sent members of the MEK to stop our revolution against him in 1991 so there is that bad history between us." Mr al Mayali said various government officials from Baghdad had proposed setting up a site for the MEK in Muthana, and that locals had consistently refused to accept it.

"I cannot stop my people's anger against this terrorist group," he said. "Maybe they will want to take revenge for 1991 and attack them. I certainly could not guarantee security for the MEK here." A leading local tribal leader, Sheikh Resan al Myasar, also cautioned there would be violence if MEK members were sent south. "We have not forgotten how they showed us no mercy when they crushed the uprising and so now the sons of our tribe would show them no mercy. There is malice here; the people of Muthana want to bury them with their hands."

Amnesty International demanded a halt to any eviction from Ashraf, warning it would put MEK members at risk of arbitrary arrest, torture or murder. "Whatever measures the Iraqi authorities decide to take with regard to the future of Camp Ashraf, the rights of all its residents must be protected and guaranteed at all times," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Amnesty International.

A spokesman for the MEK said any attempt to evict members from Camp Ashraf would be a violation of international humanitarian laws. In a written statement, the MEK called "on the United Nations and the American government to guarantee the protection of Ashraf residents and ensure prevention of forcible relocation and a repeat of use of force and violence against them". The failure of the Muthana relocation attempt means the issue of the MEK remains stuck in a stalemate. No new proposals for solving the problem have yet been made.

In January the MEK was taken off of Europe's list of terrorist organisation, raising hopes the Ashraf matter might be dealt with by granting residents asylum in the European Union. Member states have so far refused to let that happen, however. @Email:nlatif@thenational.ae