The Iraqi government is using the State Department’s terrorist designation of a group of Iranian dissidents as an excuse to crack down on the unarmed exiles in their camp north of Baghdad, a top Republican lawmaker said Tuesday.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on oversight and investigations, said taking the group off the terrorism list would deprive the Iraqi government of this cover and expose it as a puppet of the theocratic regime in neighboring Iran.
“The Iraqi government is kissing the bloody boots of the mullahs in Tehran,” Mr. Rohrabacher said.
Mr. Rohrabacher is scheduled to convene a subcommittee hearing on Wednesday to seek an explanation from State Department officials about a court-ordered review of the terrorist label and an update on developments at Camp Ashraf.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has set a Dec. 31 deadline to close Camp Ashraf and relocate the 3,400 Iranian dissidents of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), a former military wing of the Iranian resistance that U.S. forces disarmed in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has said the deadline does not leave enough time to process the residents’ refugee status requests.
The Iraqi army attacked the camp on April 8, killing 36 residents, including eight women. More than 300 others were wounded. On Oct. 31, Iraqi troops and police entered the camp with sirens blaring in what residents said was an attempt to intimidate them. Supporters say all signs point to an impending massacre at Camp Ashraf.
“If we officially designated a group of people as a terrorist organization, we shouldn’t be surprised when someone commits an act of violence against them,” Mr. Rohrabacher said in an interview.
“However, the people at Camp Ashraf are not terrorists, and it is a great disservice to truth and to them and to finding some kind of peace in that part of the world to continue designating them as terrorists.”
Mr. al-Maliki wrote in The Washington Post this week that Camp Ashraf residents “are classified as a terrorist organization by many countries and thus have no legal basis to remain in Iraq.”
The Iraqi Embassy in Brussels last month sent a letter to the European Parliament in which it listed the designation of MEK as a terrorist organization by the “international community” as a reason to justify its decision to close Camp Ashraf by the end of the year.
Mr. Rohrabacher said taking the group off the U.S. terrorism list is not likely to change the Iraqi government’s attitude.
“They are trying to placate the mullahs, and that is not going to change simply because we change the designation,” he said.
“All we would have done is eliminate their cover, which is ‘These are terrorists, so thus we can do this,’ when in fact all they are doing is the bidding of a mullah dictatorship in Tehran,” he added.
The MEK has bipartisan support on Capitol Hill and is backed by prominent former officials, including those who have served in Republican as well as Democratic administrations. The MEK also IS known as the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.
In July of 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit gave the State Department six months to re-examine its decision to keep the group on the terrorist list. The State Department designated MEK as a foreign terrorist organization on Oct. 8, 1997.
“Our focus is on reviewing the [terrorist] designation in accordance with the D.C. Circuit’s decision and applicable law,” said Noel Clay, a State Department spokesman.
The State Department is “working as quickly as possible to complete the review,” he added. At the end of the review, it will be up to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to decide whether to maintain or rescind the terrorist label.
State Department officials Daniel Fried, special adviser on Camp Ashraf, and Barbara Leaf, deputy assistant secretary for Iraq in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, are scheduled to testify at the subcommittee hearing.
President Obama is scheduled to meet with Mr. Maliki at the White House on Dec. 12.
Sam Drzymala, a spokesman for Rep. Russ Carnahan, the subcommittee’s co-chairman, said the Missouri Democrat hopes to get an update at the briefing on the status of the “safety, protection and potential relocation options for the residents of Camp Ashraf as the U.S. military transitions out of Iraq.”
All U.S. combat troops are expected to leave Iraq by the end of the year.
In June of 2009, the U.S. turned over control of Camp Ashraf to the Iraqi government, which gave written assurances that it would treat the residents in accordance with Iraq’s constitution and its international obligations.
Ed Rendell, a Democrat and former governor of Pennsylvania, said the al-Maliki government “cannot and should not be trusted to protect the lives of the residents of [Camp] Ashraf.”
Tom Ridge, homeland security secretary under former President George W. Bush, said the Iraqi government has to make a decision.
“Will they be a friend of the United States … or a lackey to Iran?” he asked.
He and Mr. Rendell spoke along with other MEK supporters at an event in Washington last week.
Camp Ashraf residents surrendered their weapons in 2003 as part of a cease-fire agreement with U.S. forces.
Besides the U.S., Canada, Iraq and Iran list MEK as a terrorist organization. Britain and the European Union took MEK off their lists of terrorist organizations in 2008 and 2009 respectively.
Earlier this year, French magistrates dismissed terrorism charges against MEK members after an eight-year investigation.
The State Department accuses the MEK of terrorist attacks in Iran in the 1970s that killed several U.S. military personnel and civilians. MEK also received military and financial support from Saddam Hussein’s regime, according to the State Department.
There is considerable debate in Washington over taking the MEK off the terrorist list.
Kenneth Katzman, a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs at the Congressional Research Service, said some U.S. officials are convinced that such action would be viewed by the Iranian government as a hostile act and eliminate hope for a resumption of talks on Iran’s nuclear program.
Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said taking MEK off the terrorist list would set back U.S. interests in Iran for years.
“An American embrace of a group that has killed so many Iranians and allied itself with Saddam Hussein and other American embassies would be a world-class [mistake],” he said.
Others argue that delisting the MEK would be interpreted by the Iranian opposition as the U.S. throwing its weight behind what they say is an undemocratic group that does not have much support inside Iran.
“This is not a group the U.S. would look to work with as part of a policy of supporting groups that are trying to achieve human rights and democracy,” said Mr. Katzman.