WASHINGTON — The congressional hearing earlier this week was to have focused on al-Qaida’s resurgence in Iraq, but lawmaker after lawmaker veered off topic to ask about another problem left from the U.S.-led war there: what to do with a group of Iranian dissidents stuck in a besieged camp in Baghdad.
The plight of the former militant group known as the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq dominated the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday. Critics of the group consider it a cult and note that only a year and a half ago it was still listed as a U.S.-designated terrorist group. They’re outraged at what they call the disproportionate amount of attention the group receives in Congress.
Yet despite all the powerful friends won by the MEK’s deep pockets and relentless lobbying, the group has seen relatively little progress in efforts to relocate the 2,500 or so members who remain in Iraq, where they’re vulnerable under the Iran-friendly government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Since September, attacks on Camp Liberty, the former U.S. base where the group is housed under the watch of the Iraqi military, have killed more than 50 people and wounded many more.
American supporters of the group — including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich — say the United States has abandoned its pledge to protect the group, which was disarmed after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. A few hundred MEK members were relocated recently to Albania and Germany, but there’s no word yet on a broader resettlement program in accordance with a 2011 agreement between the Iraqi government and the United Nations.
Eight members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee — six Republicans and two Democrats — lambasted the U.S. government for failing to do more to protect the virtual prisoners at Camp Liberty.
The most forceful was Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., who called Maliki a “murderer” and said the United States had no business helping him on other issues, such as the fight against jihadists in western Iraq. Another Republican, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, complained that the residents “still have very little protection” and demanded “extra effort in saving lives there.”
Brett McGurk, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, had been called to testify about al-Qaida but found himself answering as many if not more questions about the MEK. McGurk, who visited Camp Liberty on a trip to Baghdad this month, said talks were ongoing about resettling the residents and getting them more protections in the meantime.
“I told them I promise I would do everything I could,” McGurk said of his talks with MEK members in the camp.
An investigation by Britain’s Guardian newspaper found that Rohrabacher had received thousands of dollars in donations from MEK supporters in 2012 alone. The paper’s report added that Ros-Lehtinen has accepted at least $20,000 in campaign donations from Iranian-American groups, or their leaders, that support the MEK. Other members of Congress have been flown to France to address pro-MEK events, and a Washington lobbying firm received nearly $1 million to work on getting the MEK off the terrorist list, according to The Guardian.
Shirin Nariman, a Virginia-based MEK activist, acknowledged that some of its political allies had received money from MEK supporters. But Nariman said that more important than campaign donations and speaker fees was the time the group had spent knocking on the doors of politicians, making them aware of the MEK’s cause.
“Tom Ridge told me once, ‘When I sit down and hear the stories of the mothers, it gets to me,’” Nariman recalled. “It touches their hearts. They’re humans, and it doesn’t matter how much they get paid.”
The MEK took part in the Shiite Islamist overthrow of the U.S.-backed shah during the Islamic revolution of 1979, but it quickly fell out with the ayatollahs and, according to news reports, thousands of its followers were killed, imprisoned or exiled. The MEK carried out a string of bombings and assassinations that targeted regime officials. In 1997, the United States declared it a terrorist organization.
Under former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, who fought an eight-year war with Iran’s Islamic government, the MEK was given land just outside Baghdad upon which it built a self-sufficient camp. But the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq ushered in an Iranian-friendly, Shiite leadership that was extremely hostile to the MEK, in part because the group is said to have aided Saddam in crushing rebellions in the 1990s. U.S. forces disarmed the camp, guarded the group for years and quietly helped facilitate repatriation to Iran for MEK defectors who agreed to an amnesty program offered by Tehran.
Now, MEK members say, the only exit from Camp Liberty is the offer of repatriation to Iran, where, they fear, they’ll face retaliation. MEK members and supporters are urging the Obama administration to resettle even a few of the members in the United States, in hopes the move will make other countries more amenable to accepting them.
“Even if they bring a handful, if they just start, it’ll show there’s goodwill and other countries will start picking them up. But that hasn’t been done,” said Nariman, the MEK activist in Virginia.
Until there’s a resolution, MEK members and their backers say, the group lives under constant threat of attack, its vulnerability made worse by the Iraqi forces’ removal of hundreds of “T-walls,” the heavy protective barriers that guard against bombings.
Most of the recent MEK casualties came from a single incident, on Sept. 1, when an attack left 52 people dead and seven missing. Residents of Camp Liberty say they were attacked by Iraqi forces; the government denies that soldiers entered the camp and blames the deaths on MEK infighting.
U.N. investigators found evidence that supported the MEK’s version of events.
“Inside the camp, the delegation witnessed 52 bodies in a makeshift morgue. All the deceased appeared to have suffered gunshot wounds, the majority of them in the head and the upper body, and several with their hands tied. The delegation also saw several damaged buildings, including one burnt, and was shown quantities of explosives,” the investigators wrote. The team noted the U.N. envoy’s “outrage at the brutal killing of the camp’s residents.”