Monday, President Obama welcomed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to the White House with the declaration that U.S. troops were leaving Iraq with “heads held high.” But while administration spin-miesters are promoting the so-called deepening strategic partnership between the United States and Iraq, an emboldened and increasingly defiant Maliki is quickly moving forward with sinister preparations of his own that threaten to jettison President Obama’s mission-accomplished moment.
In collusion with the Mullahs terrorist regime in Tehran, the Iraqi Prime Minister is planning a Srebrenica-style massacre of 3,400 unarmed Iranian dissidents living in his country at Camp Ashraf---each and every one of whom was given a written guarantee of protection by the U.S. government. I was the general who delivered that promise to the residents of Camp Ashraf in 2004.
Camp Ashraf is home to members of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) who are “protected persons” under the Geneva Conventions. As the main Iranian opposition movement, MEK is committed to non-violent regime change in Iran and a democratic nuclear-free Iranian future. MEK has provided the US with valuable intelligence about the existence of multiple nuclear sites scattered in different parts of Iran. For these reasons, the Mullahs’ regime in Iran considers MEK an existential threat, and is enlisting a willing Maliki in their evil enterprise to annihilate the residents of Camp Ashraf.
So it’s no surprise that Maliki set the stage for his White House visit by refusing U.S., EU, and U.N. demands to postpone the arbitrary and illegal deadline he imposed for closing Camp Ashraf and making it impossible for UNHCR to register and resettle the residents safely in other countries.
That Maliki’s deadline coincides perfectly with Obama’s date for withdrawal of the US presence in Iraq—Dec 31--, is no accident: It sends a clear and unmistakable message to Washington that the Obama-Maliki relationship is a litmus test for the President’s legacy in Iraq and American credibility throughout the region.
“Closing” Camp Ashraf, is Maliki’s euphemism for dispersing these defenseless men women, and children throughout Iraq where they can be more easily killed out of sight of the international community or kidnapped and brought to Iran where they face execution.
Both Maliki and the Mullahs rationalize the atrocities at Camp Ashraf with the excuse that America has maintained MEK as a listed Foreign Terrorist Organization since 1997. The Clinton administration initially added MEK to the State Department’s blacklist as a good will gesture to Iran—mistakenly thought at the time to be moving towards moderation, and the designation was subsequently maintained in an effort to persuade Iran to abandon their nuclear program. But today, we can plainly see that Iran is no closer to moderation; its nuclear ambitions are actually closer to fulfillment, and Obama’s failure to de-list MEK, in the absence of any legal or factual basis, continues to stymie the prospects for democratic change in Iran.
It was about ten years ago that I first learned of the existence of the MEK. Little did I know then that in a very short time I would be personally involved with this group and its fight for survival. With a looming deadline coming on December 31, my fond memories of these Iranians might turn out be just that… memories. But this could be averted.
I know first-hand what it means to suffer at the hands of terrorists – I was the director of security for the Army at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Shortly thereafter, I deployed as the senior military policeman responsible for many missions in Iraq, including the safety and security of the residents of Camp Ashraf.
I was there when they voluntarily disarmed in return for U.S. promises of protection. I saw what remained of their other facilities after they were looted and destroyed by Maliki’s forces. I was there when each and every person of the MEK was biometrically identified, vetted, screened, and interviewed by the U.S. military. Did we find any terrorists or criminals or undesirables among the several thousand men and women? No. Each was thoroughly investigated and not one was identified as having any linkage to criminal acts. A few had unpaid parking tickets. That might seem frivolous, but I mention it to show how thoroughly we investigated each member of the MEK at Camp Ashraf.
I really had to step back and wonder why they are identified as terrorists by the State Department. I tried very hard but I could not find any credible allegation, any overt or covert crime, any reason why this group carried the FTO designation that Maliki and the Mullahs cite as a rationale for their atrocities.
I witnessed firsthand equal rights in action at Camp Ashraf. I spent significant time living and working at Camp Ashraf. I got to know almost every senior leader of the MEK at Ashraf, and many of the residents. After the vetting process was completed I brought the message back to the leadership of Ashraf that they were now classified as protected persons under the Geneva Convention and I was personally charged with their safety and security. And, even though I’m no longer directly responsible for safety and security at Camp Ashraf, I still feel morally responsible, as all of Americans who take pride in our country and our word should be.
I had open and unrestricted access to every area of Camp Ashraf. I staged independent, unannounced inspections and never, discovered any indication of anyone being kept there against his or her will by the Camp’s leadership, as some detractors mistakenly allege. And I really tried to uncover proof of those allegations. But the only thing I was ever able to prove without a doubt was that the allegations were false. Were there any issues between my units, my forces, and the MEK at Ashraf? Of course! But they were few and far between, and all were resolved by simple discussions and mutual understanding.
I spent well over a year seeking definitive guidance regarding a way to resolve the humanitarian crisis at Camp Ashraf. I brought many senior leaders of the coalition forces to Ashraf. They were all stunned that we were keeping these defenseless men, women and children in such limbo. I left Iraq frustrated after that tour, and a year later when I returned, I saw that there had been no change. There was still no definitive guidance. During that tour I was charged with rapidly rebuilding the Iraqi police, and simultaneously I was General Petraeus’s expert on all police and security operations, including security at Camp Ashraf.
We gave the people at Camp Ashraf a promise of protection following a very thorough vetting process—and I know this for a fact because I delivered that promise. I feel so strongly about it that even now, I would return to Ashraf to be an intermediary to ensure the safe relocation of the residents.
I fear that unless we have some type of intermediary, some type of initiative very soon, some due resolve, given the December 31 deadline imposed on Ashraf by the government of Iraq at behest of Tehran, another tragedy will occur. We’ve seen members of this organization viciously attacked in the recent past and dozens of them, young and old killed and about 1,000 wounded by the Iraqi armed forces. In a few weeks, if the deadline to close Camp Ashraf is not postponed, we could see an even greater tragedy.
A cry must be sounded loud and clear—the very same cry that was sounded by thousands of Iranian Americans who stood outside the White House on December 12 as the President was meeting with Maliki, that we will not stand for violence against the defenseless people of Camp Ashraf. Maliki’s arbitrary and illegal deadline must be postponed, his plans for forcible dispersion of Ashraf residents in Iraq shelved, and the U.N. refugee agency encouraged to find the residents sanctuary in third countries.
Evil thrives in darkness, so let’s shed some light on Camp Ashraf: I tried to find a terrorist at Camp Ashraf and I could not. I tried to find people held against their will at Camp Ashraf. I could not. All I found there were people committed to non-violence and a free and democratic Iranian future.
I only hope the world is listening. The time to act is now. This is more than a local issue: the people of "Camp Ashraf," have relatives in the United States and Europe who care deeply about their fate.
As we exit from Iraq, the Obama White House should take care not to undercut the West’s fight against Iranian nuclear breakout by giving Iraq’s Shia prime minister the impression that the U.S. is a paper tiger that will easily abandon its solemn promises to Ashraf residents by sending them to face certain death in the Iraqi desert.
Brig. Gen. Phillips is the former Chief of Military Policy at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and former Commander of all Police Operations in Iraq, which included the protection of Camp Ashraf.