Iraq’s Assault on Camp Ashraf: The Tenuous Life of a Fringe Iranian Faction

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Update: The U.N. reported on April 14 that 34 people were killed during the raid on Camp Ashraf last week.

Was ever there a stranger lot than the Mujahedin-e-Khalk Organization?  Today its military arm stands braced for the worst in Camp Ashraf, a dusty military base tucked into a corner of a once-welcoming host nation, Iraq, that last week sent troops in, killing either three, or 33, depending on the account. But 30 years ago the MKO, also known as the MEK, also known as the People’s Mujahedin, was in the thick of the 1979 Iranian revolution, the heavyweight contender from the Communist end of the spectrum, slugging it out for control of the rebellion against the Islamists gathered behind Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.  The ayatollah’s side prevailed, rounding up MKOs by the thousands and hanging them day after day after day in Evin Prison. I know a man whose job, as a prisoner, was dragging away the bodies; he still has nightmares. The MKO got its licks in too; Khomeini’s successor sports a prosthetic hand since losing his own when an MKO bomb went off in a 1981 meeting.

That’s pretty much where things have stood since. Except that as the Islamists have grown harder, the MKO has grown weirder.  Inside Iran, they remain a significant, albeit underground — even ghostly — opposition presence, skilled at survival but with eyes pealed for chances to wound the regime.  In recent years, that’s mostly been by exposing its nuclear secrets. It was the MKO that, going by the name National Council of Resistance of Iran, revealed the nuclear facilities at Natanz and Arak.

Outside Iran, the group came to look more and more like a cult – with tanks. Its headquarters ended up in suburban Paris, where leaders Massoud Rajavi and his wife Maryam exerted unusual control over members, dictating among other things who would sleep with whom.  (Women’s rights featured in the explanation.)  When French riot police stormed the compound in 2003, nine members protested by setting themselves on fire.

Thousands of others MKO loyalists remained as physically close to Iran as possible, on low, brown hills on the Iraq side of the border. During the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, they had fought for Saddam Hussein, earning a vicious reputation for mercenary attacks on the Iraqi Kurdish population that, in a parallel betrayal, had chosen to side with Iran.

Then the Americans invaded. In the first days of the war, U.S. Special Forces directed a few bombing strikes on MKO positions in early 2003 before the order came to take the Iranian exiles prisoner while the Bush Administration debated what to do with them.  There was serious talk of turning them loose against the mullahs, but in the end the 3,500 loyalists remained in Camp Ashraf,  located in Diyala Province within striking distance both of the Iraqi Kurds and Iran. In 2009, as U.S. forces prepared to pull out, they became Iraq’s problem again, except Saddam was no longer around. Their host country was now run by some of the people the MKO hunted on his behalf — a government of Kurds and Shiites that, in addition to the memory of facing MKO tanks, values its close relations with the Islamic Republic of  Iran.

Which brings us to the events of last week. Iraqi forces entered Camp Ashraf after fighting broke out, apparently over efforts to return some of the land under the camp to local farmers.  They wanted to plant barley on it again. Iraqi commanders said only three MKO were killed, caught under the wheels of military vehicles. Camp residents put the number at 33, and said they were fired upon.  When reporters were bused to the site, the Iranian exiles held up a banner reading: “Stop right here and let us tell the crimes.”  The bus drove on.