A recent report by the RAND Corporation, a prominent think tank that does research for the US Government, illustrate that Washington committed a judgmental error when dealing with the terrorist Mujahedin-e-Khalq Organization (MKO) in Iraq.
During the 2003 Operation Iraqi freedom, an ongoing military campaign that resulted in the invasion of Iraq by the coalition forces, the MKO was designated as an enemy force.
The "Rajavi cult", as the MKO became to be known, had provided security services to Saddam Hussein from its camps in Iraq and had been listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the US Secretary of State.
It had also targeted Americans in Iran throughout the 1970s. They assassinated a number of American citizens, namely William C. Cottrell, Colonel Lewis L. Hawkins, Donald G. Smith, and Colonel Jack Turner inside Iran.
After a cease-fire was signed, the then US Secretary of Defense designated this group’s members as civilian “protected persons” rather than combatant prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions
A RAND study, which examined the evolution of this controversial decision, says the designation has left the United States open to charges of hypocrisy in the war on terrorism.
The MKO was founded in Iran in the 1960s, but its top leadership and members fled the country some twenty years later, after carrying out numerous acts of terror inside the country.
The group masterminded a series of assassinations and bombings inside Iran, including the 1981 bombing of the offices of the Islamic Republic Party, in which more than 72 senior Iranian officials were killed, including the Judiciary Chief, Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti.
The Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had invited the MKO into Iraq to fight on his behalf during the eight-year Iraq-Iran War. Once it settled in Iraq and fought against Iranian forces in alliance with Saddam, the group, already hated within Iran for its indiscriminate terror campaign, incurred further ire of the Iranian people.
MKO members where housed in ‘Camp Ashraf,’ in a city approximately 40 miles north of Baghdad, thereby establishing a base for planning operations against the Tehran government during the eight-year war as well as conducting operations against Iraqi Kurds and Shias during the 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein.
From the early weeks of Iraq’s invasion in 2003 until January 2009, the coalition forces detained and provided security for members of the group, described in the RAND report as “an exiled Iranian dissident cult group living in Iraq".
"Despite their belief that the MKO did not pose a security threat, coalition forces detained the group and provided protection to prevent the Iraqi government from expelling MKO members to Iran, even though Iran had granted the MKO rank and file amnesty from prosecution," RAND says.
"The coalition’s decision to provide security for an FTO (Foreign Terrorist Organization) was very controversial because it placed the United States in the position of protecting a group that it had labeled a terrorist organization," it adds.
In April 2003, US forces in Iraq negotiated a ceasefire between its troops and the MKO, based on claims that later turned out to be false.
"Because they had no information about the characteristics of the group, the Special Forces officers who received the request were persuaded by MKO leaders (who spoke fluent English) that, prior to the invasion, the group had offered to fight on the coalition’s behalf and that many of its members had been educated in the United States."
In May 2003, the Washington establishment agreed to direct coalition forces to secure MKO’s surrender and to disarm the group.
The coalition officers who negotiated with the MKO leadership were dissuaded from carrying out this instruction. Rather than insisting upon the MKO’s surrender, they accepted a cease-fire agreement under which the MKO would be disarmed and its 3,800 members (at the time) would be consolidated and detained through assigned residence (rather than internment) at Camp Ashraf.
Coalition forces, however, took no action to determine the legal status of the MKO for more than a year. The report says this was due to the fact that the US Department of Defense (DoD) was not sure ‘what law should be enforced for the MKO.’
"The United States had adopted the contentious policy of not applying the Geneva Conventions to foreign terrorists fighting in Iraq, though it did apply them to enemy forces while invading Iraq, and war planners had named the MKO an enemy force."
To make matters worse, the group, who had a long history of trickery, had asserted that it had not engaged coalition forces in combat. Officers responsible for detaining the MKO accepted this claim, even though at least one special-forces-casualty had resulted from combat with the group.
"If coalition forces, and particularly those involved in any type of negotiations with the MKO, had been appraised of the group’s long history of deception, they would have been far less likely to have made the kinds of concessions that proved so troublesome later on."
In June 2004, the US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld tried to determine the legal status of the MKO, by designating its members as civilian “protected persons” under the terms of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
The designation, which presumes that the ‘Rajavi cult’ had not engaged coalition forces in battle, went against recommendations by the Department of State, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
"It has proven to be extremely controversial because it appeared that the United States selectively chose to apply the Geneva Conventions to a designated terrorist organization and, further, to grant it a special status," RAND reported.
When, in late 2003, the Iraqi government and the Iraqi Governing Council passed a resolution calling for the expulsion of the group from Iraq, the United sates refused to return MKO members to Iran.
The White House, labeling their return as "a ‘gift’ to the Islamic Republic of Iran," announced its intention to seek the MKO’s relocation elsewhere.
According to the Geneva Convention, when detainees are released from assigned residence or internment, they may either be reestablished in their country of residence prior to detention, resettled, or “accommodated” in third or neutral countries or repatriated to the country of their nationality.
Iraq had made it clear that the terrorists had no place within its boundaries. Iran was not an option either. Though Tehran had offered amnesty to the MKO’s rank and file, Washington bluntly refused to send them back.
“Despite the broad-based expectation that the IRI would persecute all former MKO members who returned to the country, that has not proven to be the case for the approximately 250 individuals who have already been repatriated through a process managed by the ICRC," RAND adds.
The only solution was to send them to any country that would accept them. No western country is willing to offer asylum to the individuals — even though 1015 MKO members have a passport or residence permit of a third country.
"The MKO was a minor issue in the overall conflict in Iraq, but it was an important one because the issues that emerged in the course of detaining the MKO were, in many ways, a microcosm of the larger challenges posed by detainee operations in general."
“To date, there is no evidence that any MKO members who were repatriated to Iran through the ICRC have been persecuted or tortured," The report says.
“JIATF (Joint Interagency Task Force) personnel and former MKO members believe that many members of the MKO rank and file would volunteer for repatriation if they were freed of the MKO leadership’s authoritarian, cultic practices,"
The group practices public self-deprecation sessions, mandatory divorce, celibacy, enforced separation from family and friends, and gender segregation.
One of the MKO’s cultic characteristics is a focus on suicide.
"Although it had not used suicide as a tactical weapon in terrorist attacks since 1981, the MKO has frequently used the threat of suicide as a negotiating tactic or to frustrate investigations."
"This proved particularly effective after 10 members immolated themselves in Paris as a protest action following the arrest of Maryam Rajavi, the MKO’s co-leader, in 2003."
Although MKO leaders and supporters vigorously deny that the group is a cult, the report’s findings suggest that these denials are not credible.
As part of the “ideological revolution,” the Rajavis mandated divorce and celibacy.
Compulsory divorce required couples to place their wedding rings in a bowl and renounce their affections for one another.
Masoud Rajavi would separate couples claiming that "such practices would liberate the members" from competing loyalties. Their children were also sent to European countries, former MKO member, Mohammad-Hossein Sobhani, said in August.
Because "the organization forbids matrimony, for the past 25 years no child has been born to a man and a woman inside the organization," he adds.