A Humanitarian Catastrophe at Ashraf Spells Political Catastrophe for the White House
U.S. troops are set to completely withdraw from Iraq on the 31st of December. That is also the date for another more ominous deadline: al-Maliki's government has ordered what looks to be a bloody attack on innocent political refugees on that very same day, despite strong condemnations from human rights groups, parliamentarians, and journalists from around the world. Maliki's order to empty Camp Ashraf, which will no doubt lead to a massacre, came after his meeting with the Iranian leader Khamenei. Dispersion of the camp residents no doubt will resemble what happened to the Jewish community during the Second World War.
The attack will target the 3,400 residents of Ashraf, or "Camp New Iraq," who are Iranian political dissidents hated by Iraq's powerful neighbor. The camp has been attacked by Iraqi forces twice before, once in April this year and once in 2009, and in total more than 47 of the civilian residents were killed -- either shot or run over by armored vehicles. At present the camp is inhumanely blockaded by Iraqi troops who prevent medical and other vital supplies, journalists, human rights groups, and parliamentarians from entering. Al-Maliki is now summoned by the tribunal court in Spain for crime against humanity. The fact is that the Iraqi government's plan is now to disperse rather than allowing the U.N. high commissioner for refugees the time needed to safely resettle the residents in Europe.
The residents of the camp have a complicated history. They fled Iran after tens of thousands of political dissidents were executed by the Khomeini regime in the eighties. They were welcomed in Iraq, which, with the support of Western governments, was at war with Iran. Most of the residents have lived in or near Ashraf now for a quarter-century and have built lives, schools, and a beautiful mosque there. They were also integral in revealing the Iranian secret nuclear facilities. As a source of inspiration, they are important to the "Persian Spring." All in all, this is more than enough to put them on the regime's death list.
The residents also have a complicated history with the U.S. In 1997, as a gesture of goodwill to the "moderate" Khatami government in Iran, the U.S. put the residents (or rather the organization many of them belong to) on the State Department list of foreign terrorist organizations, without any factual basis. In the EU and Britain, courts have declared terror designations of this organization "perverse" and removed them. Despite a federal court ruling ordering the designation to be reviewed, the removal process is being stalled for political reasons in the U.S. by the State Department. At the same time, the residents of Ashraf have been protected by and had very good relationships with U.S. troops, been designated as protected persons by the U.S. under the fourth Geneva Convention, and have been declared U.S. allies by chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, FBI directors, and other prominent members of the intelligence community.
But never mind this complicated history -- the facts of the current situation remain. On the last day of this year, President Obama will participate in a ceremony analogous to standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier underneath a banner reading "Mission Accomplished." CNN will show footage of the last U.S. troops leaving Iraq. On split-screen, they will show thousands of Iraqi troops pouring into a refugee camp with the purpose of "dispersing" the residents across Iraq. In practice, this will mean firing indiscriminately at civilians, burning buildings, dragging severely ill men and women out of the clinic, running people over with trucks, and kidnapping residents to be tortured. All of this has happened in Ashraf before. Twice. See YouTube if you don't believe it. The residents will not go quietly, because they know that they will be going to their deaths. Their unarmed and peaceful resistance will be met by deadly violence by U.S.-trained forces under the command of an Iran-friendly budding dictator.
The residents of Ashraf enjoy as wide bipartisan support as any issue in Washington today. But that support will quickly translate into a very pointed and harsh critique by the Republicans of how the Obama administration, for political reasons, is abandoning U.S. allies in its rush to leave Iraq. The Republican candidates will, with good reason, attack the president's failed Iran policy. They already have, but now there will be blood on the administration's hands to prove the point. The split-screen video described above will prove to be a political nightmare for the president.
Human rights advocates, U.S. allies, and family members of the residents have pleaded with the administration to take action -- to pressure Iraq to cancel its deadline for the "closure" of the camp and allow the UNHCR to do its work. Their humanitarian pleas have fallen on deaf ears. It is with a sad heart that one can note that the residents' best hope of survival is the political survival instincts of President Obama. Perhaps the administration will listen if it becomes clear that its members have electoral skin in the game, and not just a moral responsibility. Voters are looking for true leadership -- and I, for one -- hope that the president will display it in saving 3,400 lives in Ashraf.
Henrik Hermansson is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Political Science, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland.