- The Washington Times - Friday, May 1, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Trouble is brewing at Camp Ashraf in Iraq, where 3,500 members of the main Iranian opposition group the PMOI - the People’s Mujahideen of Iran - are based.

At Iran’s request, the Iraqi authorities, who took over protection of Ashraf from American troops in January, are now preventing medicine and fuel from reaching the inhabitants. Parts of Ashraf, including a dormitory for several hundred women, have been besieged since mid-March, and unarmed residents have been subjected to violence. Most journalists and Iraqi doctors are not allowed entry - neither are relatives of the PMOI nor women of any nationality.

These draconian measures were put into force by Iraq’s National Security Adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, a key ally of Iran, who says he wants to drive PMOI members out of Iraq. They also come two months after the European Union removed the PMOI from its terrorist list. Britain de-proscribed the group in 2008 after the Court of Appeal found that all the evidence showed it was “perverse” to classify the group as a terrorist organization.

The group remains on the U.S. blacklist, but in 2004 Washington recognized all PMOI members in Ashraf as “protected persons” under the Fourth Geneva Convention, after determining that none of them could be charged with any crime under U.S. law. Under international law, an attempt to forcefully displace the population even inside Iraq would be tantamount to a war crime.

Nevertheless, Iran’s Supreme Leader the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in February publicly demanded that the Iraqi president “implement the bilateral agreement to expel the PMOI,” triggering the current developments.

The European Parliament on April 24 adopted a resolution calling on the Iraqi government to “end its blockade of the camp and respect the legal status of the Camp Ashraf residents as ‘protected persons’ under the Geneva Conventions.”

Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, last month warned of an impending humanitarian catastrophe at Ashraf. The World Organization Against Torture urged U.S. authorities to “take the necessary steps to ensure the effective protection of Ashraf residents.”

In Strasbourg in mid-April, Corien Jonker, who chairs the refugees committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, said: “The situation of Iranians in Camp Ashraf in Iraq has become more than alarming. These persons must, as a matter of urgency, receive full guarantees of international protection.”

Most independent observers agree - and the Iraqis make no secret of this - that the actions to drive the PMOI out of Iraq have been coordinated in Tehran. Iranian authorities are overwhelmed by student-led protests and therefore resort to arbitrary arrests, torture and mass executions to spread fear. Opponents of the regime were given a major boost when the 27 EU states lifted the ban on the PMOI in January. This alarmed Ayatollah Khamenei and his mullah clique.

The ayatollah suffered a second blow at the end of January when Iraqis went to the polls to elect provincial councilors. The slate allied to Iran failed to win in any of the 14 provinces in which voting was held, and Iraqis sent a powerful message that they oppose what most call a “hidden occupation” by Iran. Almost incomprehensibly, the Christian minority groups did better in Baghdad than Iran’s chief ally.

The PMOI in Ashraf has spent the past six years convincing Sunni and Shi’ite Iraqis to stop their infighting and hostility toward the coalition and unite in opposing the import of Iranian fundamentalism. Sunni Arabs leaders now encourage members of their sect to take part in the December national elections, and top Shi’ite and Kurdish groups, including those in government, threaten to withdraw from their alliance with Iranian proxy groups such as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq led by Khamenei protege Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim.

Iraqi dailies and commentators constantly talk of 5.2 million Iraqis having backed the PMOI’s call. The Ayatollah Khamenei has realized that if current circumstances persist, come December, he will lose his grip on power centers in Iraq, which would break his already feeble ideological hold over members of his Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

To the ayathollah, losing Iraq is akin to losing the ideological adjutancy of the Guards, which also form the backbone of the suppression apparatus in Iran. It follows that the Khamenei regime would then face huge domestic public upheaval of revolutionary proportions. This is precisely why his predecessor the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini saw the takeover of Iraq, with its majority Shi’ite population, as the Islamic Republic’s lifeline, and why the Ayatollah Khamenei is putting maximum pressure on Iraq to expel his main opponents.

The current siege of Ashraf by Iraqi forces violates international humanitarian law and the written assurances Baghdad gave to the United States before taking charge of the camp’s protection. Ashraf residents have vowed not to leave despite the use of force by the Iraqis.

Fearing a humanitarian catastrophe, Iraqi democrats and nationalists such as Saleh Mutlaq, who heads the Sunni National Dialogue Front in the Iraqi Parliament, and Shi’ite Ayatollah Ayad Jamaleddin who sits on the Iraqi Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee have urged U.S. forces to take back responsibility for protection of Ashraf to undercut Iranian pressure on the Iraqi government to suppress the group.

Iraq’s Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi earlier this month announced on his Web site that the PMOI’s presence in Iraq was legal and fell “within the bounds of international conventions.”

The United States must now heed the recommendation of Iraqi democrats and retake control of Ashraf’s protection. In doing so, this time next year, we could see an Iraqi administration free of Iranian proxies and consequently an Iranian society brimming with dissent.

Robin Corbett, Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, is chairman of the British Parliamentary Committee for Iran Freedom. He is a former chairman of the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee.

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