On April 8, 2011, the Iraqi military launched a raid on Camp Ashraf, 60 kilometers north of Baghdad. The camp is the headquarters of the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (aka People’s Mujahedin of Iran), an organization opposed to the current government of Iran. According to the United Nations, some 34 people were killed in the raid and hundreds more injured.
The group was founded as a Marxist terrorist organization and was given sanctuary in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1980s. Today, Camp Ashraf is home to 3,500 members of the organization and their families.
During a visit to RFE/RL’s Prague headquarters, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari spoke to correspondent Joseph Hammond about Camp Ashraf, the pending U.S. military withdraw from the country, the tense situation around the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, and the transformative politics sweeping the Arab world.
RFER/RL: The United States is scheduled to withdraw its troops from Iraq by the end of this year. But U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently said that the United States could extend its role beyond that date. Does Iraq want U.S. troops to remain and, if so, in what role?
Hoshyar Zebari: Well, first of all, I think the agreement for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq ends at the end of 2011. And there are no plans to extend that agreement or to postpone the withdrawal. This is an issue that both the United States and the government of Iraq are committed to implement.
But it doesn’t mean that [the] American presence in Iraq will end. There will be a presence through the embassy, through the consulate, and also through the implementation of the Strategic Framework Agreement for Cooperation and Friendship between Iraq and the United States, which was concurrently signed with the [Status of Forces] agreement.
So we need some implementing tools for that agreement, in terms of training, in terms of advisers, in terms of capacity-building. But this would not be through a new agreement. This would be done bilaterally between the Iraqi ministers and its counterpart in the United States on various issues. This is how we approach the time beyond 2011.
RFE/RL: Will the Iraqi military and the Kurdish peshmerga militia be able maintain security in these tense regions after the United States withdraws?
Zebari: Well, the U.S. troops currently are not only in the north, actually. They are in different parts of the country. This is first. Secondly, I think that Iraqi security forces are capable of standing on [their] own. Of course, they will still need backup and support, but they are capable of maintaining law and order and internal security. That’s why, yes, after the withdrawal I think there has been plans to fill that vacuum, led by the United States forces. And the Iraqi military forces have some working mechanisms with the peshmerga forces in the north in order to avoid any misunderstandings or clashes in the disputed territories.
RFE/RL: What is the likelihood that the status of Kirkuk will be determined in the near future?
Zebari: This is a constitutional matter. Despite all the skeptics, all the people who raised the alarms that Kirkuk is the powder keg, it will blow up Iraq, since 2003 up to now it has not gone off. OK? Yes, there are disputed areas, claims, problems, but it has not led, really, to any all-out conflict or violence whatsoever.
This is a constitutional matter. There are procedures to address [and] resolve these issues. The new government was voted into power to implement this constitutional article, which is 140, which calls for the normalization of the situation in Kirkuk and other disputed territories. So it’s an obligation on this government.
Camp Ashraf Conflict
RFE/RL: Earlier this month, the Iraqi Army raided Camp Ashraf, home of the People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran, which seeks to overthrow Iran’s leaders. The United Nations says 34 people were killed in this raid. The Iraqi government denies this and accuses guards in the camp of being responsible.
Zebari: The Iraqi Constitution prohibits the presence of mujahedin or any other militia groups from neighboring countries, whether it’s the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party], whether it’s the PJAK [Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan], or whoever to have presence on Iraqi territory and to launch attacks against our neighbors. Constitutionally, this is not allowed and the mujahedin or the MEK member [Mujahedin-e Khalq] of the Ashraf camp have to respect Iraqi law.
Iraq has a commitment not to extradite any of its members to Iran. Iraq has a commitment also to observe international humanitarian law and to have access by international organizations to them, like the United Nation missions, ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross], and so on. Yes, what happened was very unfortunate, really, but the aim was not to expel the members of the Ashraf camp to Iran.
This was a military operation intended to take control of part of the territory. Ashraf camp is not a small camp; it is 50 [square] kilometers large. The Iraqi military extended its authority over about 20 kilometers of the camp.
No country in the world will tolerate any organization to undermine its sovereignty, to defy its authority, and to act as if this is a liberated territory or a state within a state. So they have to abide by Iraqi rules and regulations, and we have called on European countries and others to resettle these peoples in their countries, for them to go on and continue their struggle. In Iraq, their presence is unacceptable.
RFE/RL: The U.S. government originally controlled Camp Ashraf following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. They disarmed the Mujahedin-e Khalq and transferred control of the camp to the Iraqi government in 2009. Has the United States government been kept abreast of developments at Camp Ashraf? The Iraqi government has called for the expulsion of this group and set a deadline of the end of the year.
Zebari: This is an Iraqi decision. This group is branded in the United States as a terrorist group, by the Department of State, and it was in Europe up until very recently, when it was lifted. Those countries who care about the fate and human rights of this group’s action, they should welcome them and they should resettle them in their countries. My government has requested such a thing from European countries and from other countries, to resettle members of the Ashraf camp in their countries.
RFE/RL: Where do you see the Iranians going?
Zebari: Wherever. Any country — in the northern countries, in Australia, in New Zealand, Canada, the United States, wherever.
RFE/RL: Right now, we’re seeing tremendous upheaval across the Arab world — revolutions in Tunisia, in Egypt, and uprisings in Yemen and elsewhere. What can other Arab countries learn from Iraq’s political experience?
Zebari: I think what the people of these Arab countries are calling for is basic rights, basic democratic rights, basic freedoms, representative government, elections, and being part of the decision-making. And Iraq has done this through the hard way, through a difficult, arduous road to building democracy. It hasn’t been easy with the foreign occupation, with the sectarian war, with the terrorism, with the regional interventions. But Iraq has passed the test.
Because what the Arab peoples in all these countries are demanding is what we have achieved. We don’t want to be the crown or the example, but I think Iraq draws a great deal of admiration [from] many, many people on the streets of Sanaa or Tripoli or Damascus or Cairo.