News / Middle East

Raid on Refugee Camp in Iraq Raises Questions

Iraqi army soldiers stand guard near burned trailers at Camp Ashraf north of Baghdad, Iraq, April 8, 2011
Iraqi army soldiers stand guard near burned trailers at Camp Ashraf north of Baghdad, Iraq, April 8, 2011

A raid by Iraqi security forces on a camp of Iranian opposition exiles earlier this month set off an international outcry about human rights abuses and raised old concerns about Camp Ashraf and its inhabitants. The United Nations reports the raid left 34 dead and called on the Iraqi government to launch an inquiry.  The inhabitants of Camp Ashraf - some 3,500 members and supporters of an Iranian opposition group, the People’s Mujahedin, also known as the MEK or the PMOI - were once welcomed by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.  But now they are more often seen as an irritant for Baghdad and the recent attack again raised questions about just who the Mujahedin are and what their future is. 

Exiled Iranians shout "Killers!" at Iraqi soldiers guarding their desert camp.  These photos they say show victims killed by Iraqis in a raid on Camp Ashraf, northeast of Baghdad and base of the People’s Mujahedin. 

The group has been in Iraq for decades - given shelter by Saddam Hussein in the 1980’s during the Iran-Iraq War.

But on this day there was not much to see when journalists toured parts of the Camp the day after the alleged raid.

Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari said security forces had come in peace, but were threatened and insulted. "They [residents of the camp] acted in a way, which is against the law as if they were not in Iraq and as if they were not covered by Iraqi law," he said.

Details remain sketchy as to what actually happened.  But the People’s Mujahedin released this video showing what they say was the massacre of Camp Ashraf residents by Iraqi forces.  VOA is unable to independently verify its content, posted on YouTube and shown at a recent pro-Mujahedin press conference in Washington.

Former governor and Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean
Former governor and Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean

Major U.S. political figures attended, including former governor and Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean. "This is about murder and ultimately this is about genocide and for our American troops to be standing a few kilometers away watching this happen is wrong and I call upon the president of the United States to stop this now," he said.

Members of the People’s Mujahedin, or MEK, surrendered their weapons and came under the protection of U.S. troops following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.  But in 2009, control of the camp was transferred from the U.S. military to the Iraqi government.

That raised concern among MEK members and supporters and they’ve often taken those concerns to the streets in European capitals.

History of People's Mujahedin

Founded by Iranian students in the mid-1960’s, the People’s Mujahedin mixed Marxist, left-wing and Islamic ideology.  In those early days they fought against the then-Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, then briefly sided with the country’s new rulers after the Islamic Revolution of 1979.  

According to the U.S. State Department, the Mujahedin were linked to the killing of at least six U.S. military and civilian personnel in Iran before the revolution and were involved in the invasion of the U.S. Embassy and the capture of U.S. diplomats as hostages in the months that followed. The State Department put the group on its list of foreign terrorists in the 1990s and it remains on the list to this day.

Mariam Rajavi, leader of the Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), speaks to supporters at a gathering in Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris, France, July 17, 2010
Mariam Rajavi, leader of the Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), speaks to supporters at a gathering in Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris, France, July 17, 2010

MEK members and supporters are spread throughout Europe, especially in France where their top leadership, including Mariam Rajavi, lives.  They say they seek to overthrow the Islamic regime and replace it with a secular democratic government.  They like to portray themselves as freedom fighters.

'Mind-control cult'

But for Massoud and Anne Khodabandeh the group is anything but democratic.  They are former members of the British branch of the People’s Mujahedin, now living in the United Kingdom.  "I was very struck by them.  They were very disciplined," said former MEK member Anne Singleton Khodabandeh.

Anne says she was a low-level recruit, and Massoud, a high-ranking figure, but both left disillusioned. "We quickly discovered that where we had been was a mind-control cult.  A very dangerous and destructive mind-control cult," she said.

Who are supporters?

Despite such criticism, the group has supporters, including important friends in Washington - among them former top officials in the administration of George W. Bush.

"It certainly helps for the MEK to remain a bone in the throat of Iran and a diversion to the regime because of its potential to undermine the regime," said former attorney general Micahel Mukasey.

Dana Perino, a former White House spokeswoman and a member of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors that oversees VOA, joined others at a recent forum on the Iran-Iraq relationship. "So to the women of Camp Ashraf, I express my admiration...," she said.

"The organization is very effective in putting on a face...," said Near East analyst Patrick Clawson says the MEK knows how to appeal to Washington audiences. "They have presented themselves as a democratic movement in Iran which many people around the world, many people in the United States are sympathetic to - the democratic movement in Iran. "

Push for removal from terrorist list

More recently, MEK members and supporters have taken to the streets - lobbying to be taken off government terrorist lists. They are now pushing hard for removal from the U.S. State Department foreign terrorist list.

"Many of the lawmakers repeatedly in the United States asked the State Department and Secretary Clinton to remove the name from the list," said Shirin Nariman, spokeswoman for MEK supporters.

Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said a decision is near. "It’s proceeding.  These are very important considerations and reviews, and as soon as we can we will make such a decision," she said.

The MEK renounced violence more than a decade ago, but many analysts say that while it may no longer be a terrorist group, it resonates little with modern Iranians.

"One of the chapters of the history of the MEK that they have a really hard time living down is that during the Iran-Iraq war they were essentially living in Iraq and became hired hands of Saddam Hussein," said investigative journalist Gareth Porter.

Opinions about the People’s Mujahedin still vary widely and Camp Ashraf - once a political boon to Saddam Hussein - now seems to be more of an irritant to the current Iraqi government.  

For now, the government says Camp Ashraf will remain under its sovereign control and that it will safeguard the human rights of its residents.

Follow our Middle East reports on Twitter
and discuss them on our Facebook page.

You May Like

Video Obama to Send 3,000 Troops to Liberia in Ebola Fight

At Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, President says US will take leadership role for a global response to deadly Ebola virus that is ravaging West Africa More

Video China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

Muslims in Kunming say that they condemn the violence, it is not a reflection of the true beliefs of their faith More

Humanitarian Aid, Equipment Blocked in Cameroon

Move is seen as a developing supply crisis in West Africa More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Communityi
X
September 16, 2014 2:06 PM
Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Community

Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video West Trades Accusations Over Ransoms

As world leaders try to forge a common response to the threat posed by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, there is simmering tension over differing policies on paying ransoms. In the past month, the jihadist group has beheaded two Americans and one Briton. Both countries refuse to pay ransom money. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London, there is uncertainty in the approach of some other European nations.
Video

Video Scotland Independence Bid Stokes Global Interest

The people of Scotland are preparing to vote on whether to become independent and break away from the rest of Britain, in a referendum being watched carefully in many other countries. Some see it as a risky experiment; while others hope a successful vote for independence might energize their own separatist demands. Foreign immigrants to Scotland have a front row seat for the vote. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell spoke to some of them in Edinburgh.
Video

Video Washington DC Mural Artists Help Beautify City

Like many cities, Washington has a graffiti problem. Buildings and homes, especially in low-income neighborhoods, are often targets of illegal artwork. But as we hear from VOA’s Julie Taboh, officials in the nation's capital have come up with an innovative program that uses the talents of local artists to beautify the city.
Video

Video US Muslim Leaders Condemn Islamic State

Leaders of America's Muslim community are condemning the violent extremism of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. Muslim leaders say militants are exploiting their faith in a failed effort to justify violent extremism. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Americans' Reaction Mixed on Obama Strategy for Islamic State Militants

President Barack Obama’s televised speech on how the United States plans to “degrade and destroy” the group known as the Islamic State reached a prime-time audience of millions. And it came as Americans appear more willing to embrace a bolder, tougher approach to foreign policy. VOA producer Katherine Gypson and reporter Jeff Seldin have this report from Washington.
Video

Video Authorities Allege LA Fashion Industry-Cartel Ties

U.S. officials say they have broken up crime rings that funneled tens of millions of dollars from Mexican drug cartels through fashion businesses in Los Angeles. Mike O'Sullivan reports that authorities announced nine arrests, as 1,000 law enforcement agents fanned out through the city on Wednesday.
Video

Video Bedouin Woman Runs Successful Business in Palestinian City

A Bedouin woman is breaking social taboos by running a successful vacation resort in the Palestinian town of Jericho. Bedouins are a sub-group of Arabs known for their semi-nomadic lifestyle. Zlatica Hoke says the resort in the West Bank's Jordan Valley is a model of success for women in the region.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid