Camp Ashraf: U.S. downplayed threat to Iranian exiles living in Iraq days before attack

21 08 2009

Baghdad regime’s raid on anti-Tehran group’s camp ignites protests

WASHINGTON – — The Obama administration downplayed international fears over the safety of Iranian dissidents living at an exile camp in Iraq as recently as mid-July, days before a raid by Iraqi security forces killed 11 of the exiles and left scores wounded.

The deadly clash has sparked public protests in Washington and elsewhere around the world, with dozens taking part in hunger strikes to emphasize demands that the Obama administration better protect the exiles.

It also underscored the challenges of the administration’s plan to wind down involvement in Iraq and cede control of the country to a government in Baghdad that may not adhere to U.S. commitments.

In a July 15 letter to a concerned British politician, the State Department said U.S. officials were doing their “utmost” to ensure the safety of up to 3,500 Iranians living at Camp Ashraf in Iraq. Until this year, U.S. forces had been protecting the Iranians, who are members of the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran, a dissident group that has opposed the regime in Tehran from a base in Iraq since the 1980s.

Earlier this year the U.S. handed control of the camp to Iraqis.

Nonetheless, “U.S. military representatives are in daily contact with Camp Ashraf residents and continue to monitor their situation,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Richard J. Schmierer wrote in the letter, sent on behalf of President Barack Obama to Robin Corbett, a member of the British Parliament.

But in raids July 28 and 29, Iraqi security forces stormed the camp and clashed with refugees. Iraqis said they wanted to take control of the camp and establish a police post, but exiles pointed to pledges by top Iraqis to close down Camp Ashraf, as Tehran has asked Baghdad to do.

Widely circulated video clips show nearby U.S. troops in several military vehicles observing the raid, with at least one taking photographs. American officers in a white SUV are shown rolling up a window and driving away as Iranians, some wounded and bleeding, appealed for help.

Because of the group’s history of violent resistance to the clerical regime, U.S. and European governments have classified the People’s Mujahedeen as a terrorist group. But the group says it renounced violence years ago, and European officials dropped the terrorist designation this year.

U.S. forces handed control of the camp to Iraqis as part of last December’s security agreement between Washington and Baghdad, a decision protested by camp residents and their relatives and supporters living elsewhere. They consider U.S. officials bound by agreements with camp residents that followed the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The agreements, bearing the signatures of individual camp members and of U.S. officers, provide for U.S. control and protection at the camp. U.S. officials have said that Iraqi control of the camp became unavoidable after last December’s security agreement.

State Department officials last week criticized Iraqi forces, but did not return calls Tuesday concerning assurances given by the administration about the safety of exiles.

In the wake of the raid, human rights organizations demanded an investigation, and U.S. advocates for the exiles said the Obama administration is obligated to reassume control over Camp Ashraf.

“This president criticized the Bush administration for not being accountable,” said Ali Safavi, president of Near East Policy Research, a Washington group. “They need to be held to account now.”

Jalid Shenasi, one of the protesters taking part in a hunger strike outside the White House, said he was disappointed by the Obama administration’s response.

“They’ve been silent all along,” Shenasi said. “This has got to end.”

Similar protests are under way in London, Brussels, Berlin, Stockholm and Ottawa.



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