When the U.N. mandate authorizing Multi-National Forces-Iraq expires on Dec. 31, 2008, a bilateral agreement between Washington and Baghdad is to take its place. This accord would include the disposition of 3,500 Iranian oppositionists at Camp Ashraf, Iraq. They have been protected by Coalition Forces since 2003, but Tehran has been stepping up pressure on Washington to abandon its protection and have the Iraqi government take over responsibility for protecting the Iranian dissidents.
On Sept. 4, 2008, Gen. David Petraeus, commanding general of Multi-National Forces-Iraq, said the U.S. military has "begun the process of transition of security to Iraqi Security Forces." He said that Washington received "assurances" from the Iraqi government that the Iranian dissidents, known as the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), "would be protected."
If protection of those dissidents transfers to the Iraqi government, Washington could be complicit in another Abu Ghraib, a human rights disaster where detainees under American control were abused.
The people of Ashraf have their own status. On July 21, 2004, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, deputy commanding general of MNF-I, recognized them "as protected persons under the Fourth Geneva Convention."
Regardless of whether Washington remains the occupying power, however, U.S. forces are obligated to uphold the status of Ashraf residents as protected persons. The status of the "Ashrafis" has not changed, and the MNF-I continues to treat them as protected persons.
As recently as Sept. 4, 2008, Gen. Petraeus confirmed, "the residents of Camp Ashraf, the Mujahedin-e Khalq, are in a legal status that is called 'Protected Persons Status' by international law. And U.S. forces still are responsible for the security of them because of that status."
Furthermore, International Humanitarian Law continues to apply to forces of any occupying power for the entire period during which they remain in the occupied territory, as is the situation of the United States in Iraq, even after Dec. 31, 2008.
During 2007, the International Committee of the Red Cross stated, "the residents of Camp Ashraf must not be deported, expelled or repatriated ... or displaced inside Iraq."
Despite Iraqi assurances about the security of Ashraf, Iraqi officials with close ties to Iran clearly intend to expel those in Ashraf from Iraq, fulfilling an Iranian demand. An official resolution of the Council of Ministers of Iraq of June 17 called on Washington to hand over control of Ashraf and announced Baghdad's intention to expel the MEK from Iraqi soil.
Under these circumstances, any transfer of the protection of Ashraf would open up the camp to Tehran-sponsored terrorist attacks. In addition, the original threat to "Ashrafis" persists from Iranian regime proxies integrated into Iraqi Security Forces.
The American ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, complained on Sept. 27 about Iran's meddling: "Iran would like to keep Iraq off balance as a way of being able to control events here to the satisfaction of Tehran." It is this control that makes any Iraqi government assurance unbelievable, as the turnover would further increase Tehran's pressure on Baghdad to extradite the Iranian oppositionists. Evidence shows that tens of thousands of MEK members have been executed by Tehran.
While the involuntary expulsion and dispersal of Camp Ashraf residents to third countries is contrary to international humanitarian law, their status as members of a designated foreign terrorist organization (FTO) is hardly an incentive for other countries to accept them.
According to the law, the secretary of state may revoke a terrorist designation if circumstances that were the basis for designation have changed or the national security of the United States warrants revocation.
In 2001, the MEK made a formal decision to cease military activity and has not conducted any attacks since; the MEK relinquished its military hardware to coalition forces in Iraq and denounced violence and terrorism in 2003. The British Court of Appeal, presided over by the chief justice, reviewed both classified and unclassified documents, found the terrorist listing unsupported by evidence, and ordered the government in May to deproscribe the MEK. Both Houses approved, and the U.K. government removed the MEK from its terrorist list.
Regarding national security, the MEK provides crucial intelligence concerning Iran's nuclear weapons program and its terror network in Iraq, information that has saved lives of American soldiers. The MEK presence in Iraq balances the Iranian influence and is a bellwether of independence of Iraq from Iranian control.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due to make a decision regarding MEK designation by January 2009. In addition to being consistent with legal criteria for delisting, revocation would undercut Iranian pressure on Iraqi officials who justify extraditing Iran's largest opposition group at Ashraf because they are "terrorists." Delisting would also send a strong signal to Tehran that the United States has a new option on the table: democratic change by the Iranian people.
Raymond Tanter is the founder of the Iran Policy Committee and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.