The Ashraf Powder Keg

11 08 2009
Tom Hewitt

<!– Monday, 10 August 2009 14:37 –>

Aug 10, 2009
Generally, the situation in Iraq, and in Diyala Province, is peaceful.The Iraqi Army and police forces, though derided by many as ineffective, are at least strong enough to maintain a general stability among the many groups jockeying for power here.

It’s a fragile peace, however, and one feels that it’s always just one incident away from being shattered. With that in mind, senior officers here at Warhorse and around Diyala are keeping a very close eye on the situation at Camp Ashraf.

Ashraf is a camp in the north of the province, established by Saddam Hussein to house members of the Iranian dissident group The People’s Mujahedeen of Iran (PMOI). The PMOI strongly oppose the Iranian theocracy, and have been branded a terrorist organization by several governments, including the United States. Saddam loved them, however, because they constantly gave the Iranians headaches – a scenario where the enemy of an enemy is your friend.

After the invasion, American forces disarmed the members of the camp, but provided security and rejected Iranian demands that they be returned to Iran (where they would very likely be imprisoned and executed). While there were lingering resentments from surrounding Iraqis who feel that the land of Camp Ashraf should be repatriated and the PMOI sent packing, the situation was, for the moment, peaceful.

All that changed when the Iraqis took over authority of the camp earlier this year.

In the last week of July, Iraqi security forces entered the camp, ostensibly to set up an outpost inside, and lost control of the situation. Although we may never know who the initial aggressor was, footage has surfaced on YouTube of the Iraqi forces plowing through crowds in the camp with HMMVs. The event left 13 Ashraf residents dead, and wounded hundreds.

Since that event, American forces and politicians have been watching closely but insisting Iraqi forces have the situation under control.

Privately, there are concerns that Iraq — whose relationship with Iran is very complicated, as much of Diyala province’s power and other commodities come from Iran — may use the Ashraf residents as a political bargaining chip with the Iranians. Washington insists that the Iraqis not deport the PMOI members, but as the earlier incident demonstrates, Iraq is lately feeling less and less inclined to indulge U.S. wishes.

Here on the ground, people are pretty gun-shy about the Ashraf situation. I asked a soldier from Forward Operating Base Grizzly (located inside Camp Ashraf) about what it was like up there now, and he told me, “Well, let me know how much you know, so I know what not to tell you.”

There’s a definite sense that while the Ashraf situation is mostly in hand now, it could be the powder keg that ignites Diyala Province.

That possibility — coupled with the Iraqi government’s increasingly cool relationship with American elements in the country — is very troubling to U.S. forces here.



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