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Another Black & White Situation?
In the midst of sporadic violence in Iraq, whether in terms of Sunnis against Shi’is, Sunnis and Shi’is against Kurds, foreign insurgents against local ones, or even allied forces and locals against other locals, it seems that minority communities are paying the highest price in terms of loss of life as well as of rights and safety...

8 Octber   |   2009   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... But even within those small communities, there remain different levels of rights and safety. In one sense, despite its attempts at democracy, it seems that liabilities savagely overwhelm rights in an Iraq that at times still subscribes to Otto von Bismarck’s misattributed epigram that “might makes right”. For instance, the Yazidis, Shabaks and Christians are only three of the small Iraqi-rooted communities that face insuperable problems in most parts of Iraq - and perhaps more acutely in Ninewa these days. In some cases, the Iraqi Minorities Council, headed by a Member of Parliament, strives to protect the rights of minorities by law or practice.

But equally suffering the vagaries of politics are those yet smaller groups that are hardly recognised by anyone but are heaving under huge pressure. In a previous SOMA article, I focused on the stateless Palestinians who were a leftover from the Saddam Hussein era and were caught as pawns in a human no-man’s land that nobody wished to remember let alone deal with due to different political calculations. But today, I would like to shed light on another community that no less a moral authority than the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, referred to last week here in London. In fact, he had met a group of campaigners on a hunger strike in London lobbying for Iranian exiles caught in Iraq who assert that they cannot go back to Iran without risking life and limb. The Archbishop was referring to Camp Ashraf in the Diyala province in north east Baghdad where the situation, in his own words, constituted a humanitarian and human rights issue of real magnitude and urgency. He called upon the US and Iraqi governments to protect those Iranian exiles from violence and abuse, adding that a strong argument could be made that the Camp Ashraf residents are “protected persons” under International law.

So who are those Iranian refugees, exiled and living under challenging circumstances, in this camp in Iraq?

No longer welcome in Iraq, the members of this group belong to the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran (PMOI) and have for long been committed to the downfall of the mullahs in Iran. The camp is nothing new: it was established almost 25 years ago, and is almost a sprawling mini-city with its own shopping centres and hospitals. It even has its own local parliament, and its National Resistance Council, where women play prominent roles. In earlier years, Saddam Hussein used to support it as a handy tool for cross-border raids against his arch-foe Iran. Since 2003, date of the second Gulf war, the 3500 residents of this camp (including its militias and residents) were under the protection of the US military. However, the Ashraf camp was handed over to the Iraqi government in January 2009 when the US troops redeployed within Iraq. As a result, Iraqi forces launched a raid on the camp that resulted in the deaths of 11 people and the arrest of 36 others. Since those clashes, Camp Ashraf residents have feared that they will be repatriated (they would possibly prefer the term deported) to Iran where they claim they will be killed or put in prison. Whilst the 36 detainees were actually released by the Iraqi authorities and returned to the camp [today] following a local Iraqi court order, the residents - and the world-wide demonstrations by their relatives and supporters - are calling for the resumption of American protection of the camp until a UN presence can replace them.

One of the dilemmas facing the White House is that the People’s Mujahedeen, also known as Mujahedeen Khalq or the MEK, remain on the list of foreign terrorist groups at the US State Department even though the UK, the EU and Australia have dropped this designation. Besides, the movement was also linked to the assassination of senior Iranian figures, and has been dubbed ‘far left’ and ‘cult-like’ by many pundits. The Obama Administration clearly finds itself in a bind. On the one hand, the fierce opposition by this group to the Iranian government, and its alleged willingness for instance to help provide intelligence about the Iranian nuclear programme, have made it expedient to some members of the USA. On the other hand, it remains awkward for the president, and for those seeking dialogue and reconciliation with Iran, to have this vocal group in their backyard complicating their broader diplomatic overtures or even irenic efforts.

In the final analysis, groups such as those at Camp Ashraf are far too often sad and uncertain human reminders of the legacies of war in different regions of the world. In this case, Iraq is an example of a country that is still going through difficult tectonic shifts in its post-2003 evolution and has not yet emerged on the other side. But this cannot serve as an excuse for partisanship, and Iraqi authorities should resolve those lingering issues that mar the new image that its politicians are marketing for their country. Next Friday, President Jalal Talabani will attend alongside HM the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Archbishop of Canterbury an Iraq Remembrance Service at St Paul’s Cathedral in London to honour the members of the UK Forces and civil servants who served in Iraq as well as to remember those who gave their lives over the six-year operation. Would it not be apposite - helpful - for President Talabani to provide us with a firm assurance that Camp Ashraf is not merely another example of Iraqi black-and-white intractability but that it too will be resolved in good faith?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2009   |   8 October


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