U.S. congressional delegation sets off political bomb in Iraq

The U.S. Embassy in Iraq sought Saturday to distance itself from a highly contentious “fact-finding mission” to Baghdad led by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, that prompted Iraq to demand that the entire congressional delegation leave the country.

During a meeting that lasted an hour and 40 minutes Friday with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Rohrabacher informed the Iraqi leader that his House subcommittee is investigating the killing by Iraqi troops of 35 Iranian dissidents on Iraqi soil in April.

After Rohrabacher later announced his investigation to the media, al-Maliki, who’s currently acting minister of defense as well as commander in chief, apparently hit the roof.

Rohrabacher, an Orange County conservative and the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on oversight and investigations, later told reporters that the “massacre” was probably a crime against humanity.

Rohrabacher also asked Iraq to consider at a later stage repaying some of the costs of the 2003 U.S. invasion and the occupation that followed. Iraq’s government spokesman publicly responded that Iraq would pay not “a cent.”

The U.S. Embassy issued a statement explaining that Congress is a separate branch of government whose members often disagree with the executive branch. It said it was important for members of Congress to meet and exchange views with Iraqi leaders, “even when there are disagreements.”

Embassy spokesman David Ranz noted that congressional visitors “do not necessarily express the views of the U.S. administration or even a majority of the Congress.”

Rohrabacher, Rep. Russ Carnahan of Missouri — who is the ranking Democrat on Rohrabacher’s subcommittee — and four other members of the delegation were already in transit Friday night when the Iraqi government announced it had asked for them to leave the country. It appears that the telephone call by a member of the Iraqi government to the U.S. Embassy was also made at about that time.

Other members of the delegation were Republican Reps. Ted Poe of Texas, who is also a member of Rohrabacher’s subcommittee, Jeff Duncan of South Carolina and Louie Gohmert of Texas, and Democratic Rep. Jim Costa of California.

Rohrabacher told McClatchy Saturday that he had not pointed the finger of responsibility at al-Maliki, who was head of the armed forces at the time of the killings.

“If the prime minister felt guilty about it, for whatever reasons, that’s his business. We didn’t say anything to implicate him,” Rohrabacher said in a telephone interview from Istanbul, Turkey. “We did say that the massacre of so many civilians was a crime, and we needed to make sure that those responsible for it were held accountable.”

Those killed were members of the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran, or MEK by its Farsi language initials, a militant Iranian group that fought Iran under Saddam Hussein and got stranded in Iraq after the U.S. overthrew the dictator. The U.S. has listed the MEK as a terrorist group for more than a decade.

Rohrabacher said he thought the person responsible for the massacre may have been a colonel who was commanding troops on the ground at the time. He said that if al-Maliki had told his subordinates to tell their troops not to hold back and to open fire even if they were up against unarmed civilians, “then he would be culpable. Otherwise he’s not.”
Rohrabacher said he had no regrets for what he’d said and would issue no apology.

Iraq wants other countries to take the 3,400-plus MEK members now ensconced at Camp Ashraf, north of Baghdad and close to the Iranian border. Rohrabacher agreed that would be the best outcome, but he said he didn’t want the U.S. to open its doors.

“I don’t think the United States should take in everyone who’s in a bad situation,” he told McClatchy in an earlier phone interview.

Carnahan didn’t respond to requests for an interview but issued a statement that skirted any criticism of Rohrabacher’s investigation. “Last April’s reports of deadly clashes and other violence against the residents of Camp Ashraf are deeply concerning,” he said. “I encourage the government of Iraq to swiftly follow through with a thorough investigation of this incident.”

The chair of the full House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, also had no problems with the mission.

“Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, including me, have, for some time, raised concerns with the Department of State about the welfare of the residents of Camp Ashraf in Iraq and recent actions by Iraqi authorities against camp residents,” she said in a statement.

  By ROY GUTMAN

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